Friday, December 14, 2018

Flies Are Cultural Conformists in Their Sexual Preferences: The Biology of Cultural and Biographical History

                                     Fruitflies Show Social Learning of Mating Preferences

In his biological writings, Aristotle identified human beings as by nature political animals, and he compared them with other political animals such as ants, bees, wasps, and cranes.  Thomas Hobbes denied this by insisting that Aristotle failed to see the radical separation between animal societies as founded on natural instinct and human societies as founded on social learning.  Human beings cannot be political animals by nature, Hobbes explained, because "man is made fit for society not by nature but by education" (De Cive, ch. 1).  Hobbes thus supported the modern notion of culture as the uniquely human realm of social learning through which human beings express their rational humanity by transcending their natural animality.

Unlike Hobbes, Aristotle  saw no unbridgeable gulf between animal instinct and human learning.  In his biological research, he observed that almost all animals have some natural instincts for social learning, and some are intelligent enough to live as social and political animals.  What distinguishes human beings is that they are more political than other political animals because of the human capacities for language, conceptual abstraction, and shared intentionality that allow human beings to organize their collective life around shared symbolic norms of authority and justice.

Over the past two hundred years, it has been common for scholars to assume that Hobbes was right in claiming that human beings are unique in being the only cultural animals, and therefore that the "human sciences" (Geisteswissenschaften) as the study of cultural history must be separated from the "natural sciences" (Naturwissenschaften) as the study of natural phenomena.  If this is so, then the evolutionary biology of human nature has no application to human social and political life.

But over the past fifty years, evolutionary scientists have gathered ever increasing evidence--from both observational and experimental studies of animal behavior--that many animal species show social learning and cultural traditions, and therefore Aristotle was right.


Recently, for example, researchers have shown that even fruitflies are cultural animals (Danchin et al. 2018; Whiten 2018).  Female fruitflies tend to conform to the mating preferences they observe in other females, which generates cultural traditions that are passed on to others through social learning.  The researchers placed virgin female fruitflies in a hexagonal chamber, surrounded by six compartments in each of which they could see a female fly mating with a male dusted by either pink or green coloring, with another male of the alternative color standing nearby.  Some females saw that all six of the mating males were pink.  Others saw that all were green.  Others saw different proportions of pink versus green males mating.

Two Females Watch a Copulating Green Male, While a Pink Male Is Rejected

It was observed that the virgin females who had seen a majority of females mating with pink males preferred to mate with pink males; and similarly those who had seen most females mating with green males preferred to mate with green males.  Moreover, this mating preference was passed on to later generations of females as a culturally inherited tradition.

So now fruitflies are added to a long and growing list of animals identified by scientists today as showing cultural behavior.  The list includes many mammalian, avian, fish, and insect species (Galef and Whiten 2017; Whiten et al. 2017).  Actually, however, this is only a rediscovery of what Aristotle reported long ago in his biological writings.


The advance beyond Aristotle has been in developing an evolutionary science of animal culture based on Charles Darwin's theory.  Darwin understood that his principles of organic evolution--variation, selection, and inheritance--could be applied to cultural evolution, such as the cultural evolution of languages (Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland 2004).  Darwin did not understand, however, the genetic mechanisms of organic evolution.  With their modern understanding of genetics, evolutionary scientists today see genes and culture as two distinct forms of evolutionary inheritance.  Some evolutionary theorists argue that there are really four dimensions of evolution: genetic inheritance, epigenetic inheritance, behavioral inheritance, and symbolic inheritance (Jablonka and Lamb 2014).

Evolutionary science needs to explain the complex interaction of these systems of inheritance.  This is hard to do, as indicated by the recent work on gene-culture coevolution.  It's hard to define and identity the units of culture.  Richard Dawkins suggested that we might speak of cultural "memes" as analogous to organic "genes," but there is little agreement as to what should count as memes.

It's also hard to discern the connections between genes and memes, because little is known about how exactly genes influence behavior, or how exactly behavior might influence gene expression and transmission.

There are only a few examples of well-understood gene-culture coevolution.  One of the most famous cases is the evolution of lactase persistence.  The production of the enzyme lactase in the gut is necessary for the digestion of the milk sugar lactose.  This enzyme is produced in human infants so that they can digest the lactose in their mother's milk.  But in most human adults, the production of lactase is shut down, and so they suffer severe indigestion from the consumption of milk.  And yet lactase persistence--the production of lactase in adulthood--is common among those human beings with a northern and western European ancestry and those from some pastoralist groups in Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia.  The likely explanation for this is that lactase persistence evolved among dairying farmers around 7,500 years ago as a genetic adaptation to dairying culture (Itan et al. 2009).  Geneticists have identified a particular genetic variation that supports lactase persistence, and they can see that this genetic variation correlates with the cultural evolution of dairying.  So here is a clear case of where a cultural tradition created an environment that favored genetic change that would be adaptive.

It's unfortunate that Darwin did not understand this, because the mysterious intestinal illness from which he suffered throughout his life was probably a result of his being lactose intolerant.  Medical researchers studying Darwin's records of his illness have noticed that it always arose a few hours after eating dairy foods (Campbell and Matthews 2005).  All of his symptoms--vomiting, gut pain, headaches, tiredness, and depression--match the effects of lactose intolerance.

There are very few studies of nonhuman animal culture that can show this same clarity in the mechanism of gene-culture evolution.  One case that comes close is the study of animal culture among the killer whales or orcas.  Orcas stretch from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and they diets range over birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles.  But as individuals, they belong to groups with different specialized diets and hunting traditions that are passed down over generations.  These groups also show variations in their cultural traditions for vocal displays, habitat use, play, and migration routes.  Some of the scientists studying them have seen stable genetic variation in each group that correlates with their cultural traditions, which suggests gene-culture coevolution (Foote et al. 2016; Whitehead 2017).


Notice how this recognition of animal culture expands the range of biology to include cultural history and biographical history.  The biological study of animal behavior must go beyond the natural history of a species--the universal species-specific patterns of behavior--to include the distinctive cultural history of each group of animals.

Moreover, the study of animal culture shows that cultural traditions originate from innovations initiated by particular individuals that have been so successful that they have been passed on by social learning to other individuals and to subsequent generations.  Consequently, the study of animal behavior must include the study of the individual personalities of the animals responsible for cultural innovations.  For example, scientists have observed that among wild capuchin monkeys some individuals are better than others at social invention and innovation (Perry et al. 2017).  In fact, most of the detailed histories of particular animal groups--such as Jane Goodall's The Chimpanzees of Gombe--include biographical histories of the individual animals that have shaped the history of the group.

This supports my argument that a biopolitical science would have to move through three levels of political history--the natural history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the biographical history of prominent individuals in the group.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts herehereherehereherehere, and here,


Campbell, Anthony, and Stephanie B. Matthews. 2005. "Darwin's Illness Revealed." Postgraduate Medical Journal 81: 248-51.

Danchin, Etienne, et al. 2018. "Cultural Flies: Conformist Social Leaning in Fruitflies Predicts Long-Lasting Mate-Choice Traditions." Science 362: 1025-1030.

Foote, Andrew D. et al. 2016. "Genome-Culture Coevolution Promotes Rapid Divergence of Killer Whale Ecotypes." Nature Communications 7:11693.

Galef, Bennett G., and Andrew Whiten. 2017. "The Comparative Psychology of Social Learning." In Joseph Call, et al., eds., APA Handbook of Comparative Psychology, 411-439.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Itan, Yuval, et al. 2009. "The Origins of Lactase Persistence in Europe." PLoS Computational Biology 5 (8): e1000491.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion Lamb. 2014. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Revised ed. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Mesoudi, Alex, Andrew Whiten, and Kevin N. Laland. 2004. "Is Human Cultural Evolution Darwinian?  Evidence Reviewed From the Perspective of The Origin of Species."  Evolution 58 (1): 1-11.

Perry, Susan E., Brendan J. Barrett, and Irene Godoy. 2017. "Older, Sociable Capuchins (Cebus caucinus) Invent More Social Behaviors, But Younger Monkeys Innovate More in Other Contexts." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (30): 7806-7813.

Whitehead, Hal. 2017. "Gene-Culture Coevolution in Whales and Dolphins." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (30): 7814-7821.

Whiten, Andrew. 2018. "Culture and Conformity Shape Fruitfly Mating." Science 362: 998-1000.

Whiten, Andrew. et al. 2017. "The Extension of Biology Through Culture." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (30): 7775-7781.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Political Realignment in the 2018 Elections? The Declining Appeal of Trump's Authoritarian Populism, The Resurgence of Liberal Enlightenment

The 1st Congressional District of South Carolina, based in Charleston, has been held by Republicans since 1981.  Since 2013, it has been held by Mark Sanford.  But when he ran for reelection this year, he was defeated in the Republican primary by Katie Arrington, who had been endorsed by Donald Trump, who wanted to punish Sanford for criticizing him.  Trump bragged that this showed how any Republican who was not loyal to him would be defeated.  Arrington's campaign was based mostly on her being pro-Trump.  But she lost to Democrat Joe Cunningham.

Orange County in California has been known ever since the Reagan years as a conservative bastion for the Republican party.  Now, as a result of the 2018 elections, all of the congressional seats based in Orange County will be held by Democrats.

Across the country, as of now, the Democrats have gained 40 seats in the House of Representatives, which gives them control of the House.

Trump's supporters have tried to explain this as just the normal pattern in which the President's party loses seats in midterm elections.  But this ignores the fact that this is the biggest gain for the Democrats in a midterm election since they gained 48 seats in 1974, in the aftermath of Watergate and Nixon's resignation.  It also ignores the fact that the Democrats would have gained over 50 seats without Republican gerrymandering in states like Ohio and North Carolina.

What's going on here?  In the months leading up to the elections, Trump chose to push trade wars and anti-immigration as his signature issues that would mobilize his base to vote for Trump Republicans.  He sent military troops to the southern border to stop the "invasion" of America by a caravan of criminal and terrorist immigrants from Central America.  Consequently, Trump turned these elections into a referendum on his xenophobic authoritarian populism.  The defeat of so many Trump Republicans must be seen, therefore, as evidence that Trump's illiberal populism is not really that popular, and that we could be seeing the beginning of a political realignment in which Trump's Republican Party will be destroyed.

Consider, for example, the race for the 39th Congressional District in Orange County.  This was the second most expensive House race in the country, with $34.6 million in total campaign spending.  Gil Cisneros, a Hispanic American, defeated Young Kim, a Korean immigrant.  The 39th is one of the nation's most diverse congressional districts, where two-thirds of all residents are minorities, and one-fourth of the registered voters are foreign-born.  Repeatedly, Cisneros told foreign-born residents: "The Republican agenda is anti-immigration."  Kim was forced to try to separate herself from Trump's xenophobic rhetoric, but she failed.

Consider, also, the race for the 48th Congressional District in Orange County.  In one of the most solidly Republican districts in the country, Democrat Harley Rouda defeated Dana Rohrabacher, who has held this House seat for 30 years.  Rohrabacher campaigned as a staunch Trumpist with a hard-line anti-illegal immigration platform.  He accused Rouda of favoring open borders that would allow illegal immigrants to threaten the physical and economic security of Americans in Orange County.  This Trumpist rhetoric failed to sway the majority of the voters.

If Trump's Republicans cannot win in places like Charleston, South Carolina, and Orange County, California, they're in real trouble.

As I have indicated in some previous posts (herehere, and here), the electoral support for illiberal populists like Trump must decline over time, because of the enduring appeal of the libertarian values of the Liberal Enlightenment.  Trump supporters have been motivated by a cultural backlash: less educated older white rural voters cannot accept the Liberal Enlightenment humanism of the urban ethnically pluralist society favored by younger educated voters, but this cultural backlash can never win over a solid majority of the electorate.  The failure of Trump's rhetoric of trade wars and anti-immigration xenophobia in the 2018 elections illustrates this: most Americans believe that the global freedom of movement of goods and people across borders is generally beneficial for most of us, and they do not believe that the greatness of America depends on white ethnic nationalism.

The improvement in the human condition that has come from liberal open societies over the past 100 years is so evident that even those who think they are illiberal conservatives in the tradition of the Counter-Enlightenment are not really that illiberal.  I have argued that point with respect not only to American critics of liberalism like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, but also French critics of liberalism like Marion Marechal-Le Pen.  If you look carefully at what they are saying, they all turn out to be liberal conservatives who reject the illiberal conservatism of those like Joseph de Maistre.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Leo Strauss, Esoteric Writing, and "The Most Terrible Truth" of Evolution

                                  Leo Strauss with Persecution and the Art of Writing

At the Claremont Institute's American Mind website, Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise have replied to my recent post on "Strauss, Darwin, and the Pursuit of Comprehensive Natural Science," which was a response to an earlier essay of theirs.  The fundamental question in this discussion is why the scholars in the tradition of Leo Strauss have failed to take seriously modern natural science in the pursuit of a comprehensive science of the whole.

The answer to this question, I suggest, is that Strauss and his followers believe that science--particularly, Lucretian atomism and Darwinian evolution--teaches "the most terrible truth," and that those few philosophers or scientists who can bear this terrible truth must hide this truth from the great multitude of human beings who would be harmed by it.

According to Strauss, the premodern philosophers believed that "the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature," and that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times" ("Persecution and the Art of Writing," 34).  That's why premodern philosophers wrote esoterically to protect the vulgar from those harmful truths discovered by the philosophic few.

When a writer has a deeply disturbing message that he wants to transmit to his philosophic readers while hiding it from his vulgar readers, Strauss suggested, there are various techniques available to him.  One is to hide his most unpopular views by putting them at the center of his text, because readers tend to pay more attention to the beginning and ending of what they read than to the middle.

In Strauss's Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968), the central chapter--and the longest chapter--is a commentary on Lucretius's On the Nature of Things.  The exact center of the book is page 135, where Strauss concludes his study of Lucretius by explaining "the most terrible truth."  Strauss saw Lucretius as the exponent of "liberalism ancient and modern," because Lucretius was the one premodern thinker who came closest to modern liberal thought, particularly as based on modern natural science.  The central insight of Lucretius's argument is that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable" (LAM, viii).  Lucretius proves the mortality of the world as a product of emergent evolution from atoms in motion: "the world is one of the many arrangements of atoms which in a very long time came about through the furious clashes of the blind atoms without the intervention of an ordering mind or a peaceful agreement between the atoms; and once it has come about, it preserves itself for a long time" (123).  Since the world is not the product of an ordering mind, the world is not teleological, although it contains intelligent species--particularly, human beings--that have evolved to be teleological in their natural striving to satisfy their natural desires (125-26).  Since the world is not intelligently designed by a divinely providential mind, the world is indifferent to human beings and thus provides no cosmic support for human purposes.  Moreover, while the world is enduring, it is not eternal.  The world and everything in it--including the human species and all other species of life--will eventually collapse into the ceaseless motion of atoms that will then produce another world.  This is, Strauss believed, "the most terrible truth."

Notice that this terrible truth assumes atheism--the universe is not ordered by a providential Creator.  In his published writing, Strauss always said that reason could not refute revelation.  That was his exoteric teaching.  But in writing that was not published until after his death--particularly, his lecture on "Reason and Revelation" at Hartford Theological Seminary--he stated his esoteric teaching that reason had actually refuted revelation.  In that same lecture, he referred to the truth of Darwin's science of evolution as part of reason's refutation of the Bible.

Atheism is a terrible truth for most human beings because they are terrified by the thought that the universe is not permanently or eternally hospitable to human life--that the cosmic conditions for the possibility of human life arise only for a brief moment.  Think about photosynthesis, for example.  As is true for the history of all life, the history of human life depends on the photosynthetic flow of energy from the Sun through the biosphere of the Earth.  Photosynthesis was impossible until about 2.4 billion years ago, when photosynthetic cyanobacteria began to raise the level of oxygen.  All complex life as we know it depends on this atmospheric oxygen, and also on the right levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  When these conditions disappear--perhaps a billion years in the future--life on Earth will be impossible.

Farther off into the future, the Sun will burn out.  And then, even farther off, the Universe will continue to expand until it becomes a dark, cold place filled only with black holes and stray subatomic particles.

Most of us need esoteric writing to protect us from this "most terrible truth" that everything we care about must die in a lifeless universe that does not care about or for us.

Ellmers and Wise seem to deny this in affirming cosmic teleology.  "We can see," they write, "the reasonableness of an order for which intelligence is immanent and which thus tends, permanently, to produce a creature that thinks as it does.  Cosmic teleology has thus in a way not been denied by modern science, but it has, unwittingly, been affirmed."  "Permanently"?

Some Straussians--like Arthur Melzer in his book on esoteric writing--have suggested that esotericism is no longer necessary or desirable, because the success of liberalism and the scientific enlightenment in achieving open societies allows us to see now that scientific or philosophic truth is no threat to social order or human happiness.  Liberal social order can be based on the scientific truth of moral anthropology without any need for the noble lie of a moral cosmology that prevailed in traditional societies of the past. Now we can see that the "most terrible truth" is not so terrible after all.

But if this is so--that liberalism's success denies the need for esoteric writing--then this would deny Strauss's central claim that the philosophic life and the vulgar life must always be in deep conflict, so that the public communication of philosophic or scientific truth can never be possible or desirable.

Some of my posts on Strauss and the "most terrible truth" of science are hereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

Some of my posts on Strauss's atheism and esoteric writing are herehere, here. and here.

One of my posts on the esoteric atheism of the American Founders can be found here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Leon Kass's Mistaken View of Science

Seeing a new publication by Leon Kass is always a big event in my life.  So I was pleased to see the publication last year of Kass's new book--Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter Books).

I first became interested in Kass's thinking when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I attended his "job talk" in 1976 for joining the Committee on Social Thought.  His lecture--"Looking Good: Nature and Nobility"--was later published as the last chapter of Toward a More Natural Science (The Free Press, 1985).  In 1977, I audited one of his classes--on "The Passions," with readings from Aristotle (Book 2 of The Rhetoric), Descartes (The Passions of the Soul) and Darwin (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals).

In 1978, after I had taken a teaching position at Idaho State University,  I read Kass's paper "Teleology and Darwin's The Origin of Species: Beyond Chance and Necessity?"  Although Darwinian science often explicitly denies the Aristotelian conceptions of natural ends and natural kinds, Kass suggested, it implicitly points to the immanent (but not cosmic) teleology of organic life and to the emergent evolution of differences in kind from differences in degree.  Earlier in 1978, I had read a paper by Roger Masters explaining how a Darwinian evolutionary science could be interpreted as supporting Aristotelian natural right.  So with the help of Kass and Masters, I began to think my way towards Darwinian natural right.

Kass's paper was later published in 1985 as chapter 10 of his Toward a More Natural Science. In this book, he explained how modern natural science could become "a more natural science" by becoming Aristotelian in being truer to nature as known to us in our lived experience, which would provide a ground in human biological nature for human ethics.

In 1994, Kass's The Hungry Soul (The Free Press) continued his search for "a more natural and richer biology and anthropology, one that does justice to our lived experience of ourselves as psychophysical unities--enlivened, purposive, and open to and in converse with the larger world" (9).  Once again, I saw Kass as pointing to an Aristotelian interpretation of Darwinian biology that could support natural right.

But then in Kass's Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity (Encounter Books), published in 2002, during his tenure as chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, I saw that Kass was reversing his position.  At the end of this book, in his chapter on "The Permanent Limitations of Biology," Kass explicitly turned away from his "more natural science" of biological ethics.  He spoke of "the insufficiency of nature for ethics" and "the difficulty in looking to biology--even a more natural science more true to life--for very much help in answering the questions about how we are to live."  Instead of looking to nature, he advised, we should look to "insights mysteriously received from sources not under strict human command," and we should "acknowledge and affirm the mysteries of the soul and the mysterious source of life, truth and goodness" (296-97).

In 2003, with the publication of Kass's commentary on Genesis--The Beginning of Wisdom (The Free Press)--I saw further confirmation of his turn away from human reason to religious mystery.  Kass even confessed: "There are truths that I think I have discovered only with the Bible's help, and I know that my sympathies have shifted toward the biblical pole of the age-old tension between Athens and Jerusalem.  I am no longer confident of the sufficiency of unaided human reason.  I find congenial the moral sensibilities and demands of the Torah, though I must confess that my practice is still wanting.  And I am frankly filled with wonder at the fact that I have been led to this spiritual point, God knows how" (xiv).

But, then, having rejected "unaided human reason" in favor of biblical revelation, Kass offered a "philosophic reading of the Bible" rather than a pious reading (1-4, 15).  He could not offer a pious reading because he was not himself a pious believer in the Bible as God's revelation, although he wanted his reading of the Bible to evoke in himself and his readers a sense of sublime wonder and awe before "the mysterious source of life, truth and goodness."  He is an atheist who wants to feel religious emotions without having to believe any religious doctrines, such as the real existence of God as the Creator of the universe.

I have raised two objections to Kass's new position--the incoherence of his religious atheism and his mistaken view that modern science must be radically reductionist and antiteleological.  I have explained my two objections in a serious of posts over the years (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  I have made the same objections against Roger Scruton (here and here).  Kass and Scruton are representative of those cultural conservatives who promote an atheistic religiosity in their opposition to modern science as subversive of moral order.

My two objections still apply to Kass's Leading a Worthy Life.  Actually, it's surprising that Kass never acknowledges much less responds to these obvious objections.

Is Science Necessarily Reductionist  and Nonteleological?

In answering yes to this question, Kass asserts that there are five features of science that make it reductionist and nonteleological.  These five features explain science's "indifference to questions of being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things, scientific knowledge included" (300).  He offers no evidence to support these "abstract generalizations" about science.  But he does offer "a few concrete examples"--actually, three examples from cosmology, genetics, and neurophysiology.
". . . In cosmology, we have seen wonderful progress in characterizing the temporal beginnings of the universe as a 'big bang' and elaborate calculations to describe what happened next.  But from science we get complete silence regarding the status quo ante and the ultimate cause.  Unlike a normally curious child, a cosmologist does not ask, 'What was before the big bang?' or 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' because the answer must be an exasperated 'God only knows!'" (300)
Kass's assertion that science gives us "complete silence" about this question is false.  As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), some cosmologists have debated this question.  For example, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has written A Universe From Nothing:  Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (2012).  Kass is completely silent about this.

Now it is true, however, that some scientists (like Sean Carroll) think that we cannot sensibly ask the question of why something rather than nothing, because while we all have experience of how natural causes work within the universe to bring things into existence, we do not have experience with how transcendent causes work outside the universe to bring the universe itself into existence.  I agree with this.  Does Kass disagree?  He doesn't say.

Maybe Kass would say that to sensibly ask or answer this question, we need to go to the Bible--to the account of Creation in Genesis.  But the Genesis creation story does not clearly affirm creation from nothing.  As Kass indicates (294), the biblical story begins by declaring that "the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep."  That's obscure, but it's not nothing!

Moreover, since Kass says that the Genesis creation story is not a literal history of the beginning of the universe, then it would seem that the Bible (as Kass reads it) has nothing to say about what there was before the Big Bang.

Kass's second example is from genetics:
"In genetics, we have the complete DNA sequence of several organisms, including man, and we are rapidly learning what many of these genes 'do.'  But this analytic approach cannot tell us how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee, or even what accounts for the special utility and active wholeness of cockroaches or chimpanzees, or the purposive effort each living thing makes to preserve its own specific integrity" (300).
Kass cites no evidence to support this claim, and he is completely silent about the whole field of animal behavior and cognitive ethology.  Primatologists like Jane Goodall, Anne Pusey, Richard Wrangham, Robert Sapolsky, and Frans de Waal observe the natural lives of primates either in the wild or in captivity, and in explaining their behavior, they infer the emotional and cognitive experiences that constitute their subjective lives.  Much of the debate in primatology today is about how far we can infer "animal minds" from our own subjective experiences as self-conscious beings.  As indicated in a previous post (here and here), one of the vibrant areas of research today in animal behavior is the study of individual personalities among animals, which renews the study of what Darwin called the "mental individuality" of animals.  This can tell us quite a lot about "how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee."

Kass's third and final example is from neurophysiology:
"In neurophysiology, we know vast amounts about the processing of visual stimuli, their transformation into electrochemical signals, and the pathways and mechanisms for transmitting these signals to the visual cortex of the brain.  But the nature of sight itself we do not know scientifically; we know it only from the inside, and only because we are not blind.  As Aristotle pointed out long ago . . ., the eyeball (and, I would add, the brain) has extension, takes up space, can be held in the hand; but neither sight (the capacity) nor seeing (the activity) is extended, and you cannot hold them in your hand or point to them.  Although absolutely dependent on material conditions, they are in their essence immaterial: they are capacities and activities of soul--hence, not an object of knowledge for the an objectified and materialist science" (300-301).
To illustrate this claim about how objectified science cannot account for the subjective experience of sight and seeing, and to support his claim about Descartes as the founder of all science, Kass says that "in a revolution-making passage in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes sets the program of all modern science by transforming how we should approach the study of color" (317).  (Here I am using some writing from my post on "Leon Kass and the Science of Color.")

Descartes says that we can study colors by arbitrarily identifying them as corresponding to various geometrical figures.  Kass writes: "Descartes's geometrical figures, standing for the differences among the colors white, blue, and red may be passe but the principle he proposes is not: today we treat color in terms of 'wave lengths,' purely mathematical representations from which all the color is sucked out.  This tells the whole story: the objective is purely quantitative.  All quality disappears" (319).

Really?  Is this "the whole story" of the scientific study of color?  Certainly, part of the story is that scientists explain visible light as a continuously varying wavelength.  But this is not the whole story, because wave-lengths of light have no color intrinsic to them.  Color arises only for animals that have neural systems of vision that translate the variations in wave-length into color perceptions.

Some anthropologists used to say that human color perception was an arbitrary creation of culture depending on the variable color vocabularies of different human languages.  But in the 1960s, a famous experiment conducted by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay showed that this variation in color vocabularies followed a regular pattern indicating a universal of human nature.  Native speakers of twenty languages from around the world were asked to look at a Munsel array showing the full spectrum of colors and then apply the color terms from their languages.  Although there was great variation, the variation followed a universal pattern moving from two to eleven basic color terms.  The reason for this is that the human sensory system for vision tends to break down the continuing varying wavelengths of visible light into discrete units.

Notice that Berlin and Kay had to ask their subjects to report their subjective experience of color in the terms of their color vocabularies.  Color as a perceptual quality is known to us directly only through our own subjective experience.  But we can testify to that qualitative experience through language that can then provide the data for scientific study.  It is not true, then, as Kass asserts, that for modern science, "all quality disappears."

Edward O. Wilson--in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge--offered the Berlin and Kay study of color vocabularies as an example of "gene-culture coevolution" guided by "epigenetic rules."  He wrote:
"The brain constantly searches for meaning, for connections between objects and qualities that cross-cut the senses and provide information about external existence.  We penetrate that world through the constraining portals of the epigenetic rules.  As shown in the elementary cases of paralanguage and color vocabulary, culture has risen from the genes and forever bears their stamp.  With the invention of metaphor and new meaning, it has at the same time acquired a life of its own.  In order to grasp the human condition, both the genes and culture must be understand, not separately in the traditional manner of science and the humanities, but together, in recognition of the realities of human evolution" (163).
The epigenetic rules of human biology shape the broad patterns in color vocabularies that are universal propensities across all human societies.  But within those broad patterns, the specific content of color vocabularies will be determined by linguistic practices, social customs, and deliberate choices that are peculiar to some particular group.  And our scientific studies of color perception must combine quantitative methods of objectified science with the qualitative experience of human subjects expressed in language.

Such scientific study of the emergent complexity of life is lost in Kass's assumption that Descartes's reductionism "sets the program of all modern science."

My next post will be on Kass's account of religion.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Strauss, Darwin, and the Pursuit of a Comprehensive Natural Science

In their recent essay (“Skepticism, Experience, and Science”), Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise claim that the scholars in the tradition of Leo Strauss have failed to include the knowledge gained by modern natural science—particularly, physics and biology—as part of their recovery of the skeptical political philosophy that began with Plato and Aristotle.[1]  Consequently, they have failed to show how political philosophy as the architectonic science can contribute to the pursuit of a modern comprehensive science of the whole. 

Instead of engaging the deep questions raised by modern science about the universe and the place of human beings in that universe, Ellmers and Wise contend, Straussian scholars have withdrawn into a narrow academic profession devoted mostly to commentaries on old texts that repeat the standard interpretive themes of the Straussian tradition of thought.  Ellmers and Wise say that increasingly the new generation of students is losing interest in Straussian teachers who have little to say about the profound issues arising in modern science and technology.

Ellmers and Wise suggest but do not elaborate what I see as the explanation for this situation—Strauss’s fear that the victory of modern natural science over Aristotelian science has created a problem for natural right for which there is no adequate solution that would allow natural right to be rooted in a comprehensive science of nature.

The Problem of Natural Right

As Strauss explained it in the Introduction to Natural Right and History, the problem for natural right is that modern natural science is antiteleological and reductionist, and thus it denies the natural teleology and irreducible complexity of the human species that support the Aristotelian science of natural right.[2]  Strauss thought this was evident in the antiteleological and reductionist science of Darwinian evolution.  The mistake of Strauss (and many of his students) is in failing to see how Aristotle’s biological science of the natural ends and natural kinds of life has been confirmed and deepened by Darwinian biology in ways that support a modern science of natural right.[3]

According to Strauss, natural right in its classic form requires a teleological view of nature, because reason can discern what is by nature good for human beings only if they have a natural end distinctive to the human species.  Strauss thought Aristotle had the clearest view of this dependence of natural right on natural teleology.  But “the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved,” and through modern science “the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the nonteleological conception of the universe.”  The motion of the heavenly bodies is determined by mechanical causes that act without ends or purposes, and thus there is no cosmic teleology to support natural right.

This creates a dilemma, Strauss explained.  If the science of man is to be part of a nonteleological science of nature, then human action must be explained by reduction to physical impulses, which seems inadequate to explain the purposefulness of human action.  The only alternative appears to be “a fundamental, typically modern, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man,” but this rejects the comprehensive naturalism of the premodern exponents of natural right such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

Neither reductionism nor dualism was fully satisfactory for Strauss.  He concluded: “The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science.  An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved.”  “Needless to say,” Strauss then added, “the present lectures cannot deal with this problem,” because the lectures published as Natural Right and History are “limited to that aspect of the problem of natural right which can be clarified within the confines of the social sciences.”

Remarkably, the reader of Natural Right and History reaches the end of the book without ever seeing a solution to this problem of reconciling natural right and modern natural science.  Moreover, neither Strauss nor his students (with the exception of Roger Masters) have ever attempted to solve this problem.[4]

The two unsatisfactory alternatives in Strauss’s dilemma can be called “reductionist monism” and “transcendentalist dualism.”  According to reductionist monism, everything should be ultimately reducible to physical mechanism, but this cannot adequately explain the evident purposefulness of human thought and action.  According to transcendentalist dualism, human beings are uniquely free to transcend the nonteleological realm of natural causes, but this typically modern dualism denies us the comprehensive science of nature that we need to make the whole intelligible as a whole.

The Search for Comprehensive Science

In a lecture course on “Natural Right” that Strauss taught in 1962, he explained his reluctant acceptance of transcendentalist dualism.[5]

Seeing that the approach which is peculiar to modern natural science leads to a distortion of human phenomena, the most convenient thing to do is to speak of a dualism of the sciences: the sciences of nature and the sciences of man as man. . . . This distinction was generally known in Germany as the distinction of the natural and cultural sciences. . . . You have heard of this as the humanistic understanding of man in opposition to the scientific understanding of man. . . . So this dualism of sciences is a convenient practical solution.  But—and here I agree with the positivists—there is a need for an ultimate unity of science.  So this dualism of science can be accepted only as provisionally indispensable.  But this comprehensive science is today only a pious wish; and therefore one cannot say more than that it is to be desired.

Strauss’s reference here to the distinction known in Germany is apparently pointing to Wilhelm Dilthey’s separation of the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) from the Geisteswissenschaften (the sciences of the human mind or spirit, the sciences of culture, or the humanities).  The natural sciences seek causal explanations of the objectively observable realm of Nature.  The humanities seek interpretive understanding of the subjectively experienced realm of Spirit or Mind or Culture, which is the uniquely human realm.  The social sciences are in between these two opposing positions, and thus torn in opposite directions.  It has been common for conservative political philosophers—Roger Scruton, for example—to invoke this dualism as a way to defend humanistic knowledge against the expansive claims of modern natural science.[6]

This division of the intellectual world into two or three utterly separated realms of study explains the fragmented incoherence of academic life today, an incoherence that also infects our cultural life generally.  That’s why Strauss yearned for an ultimate unity of thought in a “comprehensive science.”  And that seems to be what Ellmers and Wise are striving for in arguing that the Straussians need to see the unity of the sciences through the architectonic science of skeptical political philosophy.

As an escape from Strauss’s dilemma that moves towards a comprehensive science of nature that supports natural right, I have argued for a Darwinian liberal education that sustains Darwinian natural right, which rests upon what I call “emergentist naturalism.”  Unlike the transcendentalist dualist, I affirm the continuity of nature and the integration of human beings within the natural order.  Unlike the reductionist monist, I affirm the irreducible complexity of nature, in which novel properties emerge at higher levels of organization that cannot be reduced to lower levels, so that the uniqueness of human beings as a natural kind comes from the emergent properties that distinguish the human species, which include those distinctively human natural ends that constitute the ground of natural right.  I thus draw from a long tradition in Darwinian biology of thinking about emergent evolution, which Ellmers and Wise acknowledge in referring to “the overwhelming evidence for such ‘emergent’ order in evolutionary biology.”

Straussians need to see that evolutionary biology recognizes emergent differences in kind when differences in degree pass over a critical threshold of complexity.  In his lecture in 1962, Strauss criticized the theory of evolution for teaching that “there is no essential difference between man and the brutes because man has developed out of the brutes.”  But while Darwin did say in The Descent of Man that the difference between man and the higher mammals “great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind,” he also suggested in various passages that there is a qualitative difference in kind insofar as human beings are unique in their capacities for conceptual thought, symbolic language, and moral judgment.[7]

While Darwin recognized the uniqueness of human capacities as showing a difference in kind, he feared that acknowledging this would suggest a radical difference in kind due to a miraculous creation of “spiritual powers” beyond nature.[8]  He did not see that an emergent difference in kind allows for qualitative novelty but without any miraculous break in the underlying continuity of nature.  A radical difference in kind would suggest a transcendentalist dualism with an absolute separation between natural law and human freedom.  An emergent difference in kind recognizes human uniqueness without such a dualistic separation.  So we can explain the specialness of the human mind as arising from the evolution of the primate brain passing over a critical threshold of size and complexity, where uniquely human powers arise that cannot be seen in lower primate brains. 

Leon Kass has made the same point in suggesting that Darwinian biology supports an emergent naturalism in which novel traits arise in evolutionary development at each higher level of organization in an “unbroken line of descent,” so that differences in degree pass over a critical threshold leading to differences in kind.[9]

Darwin also recognized the natural teleology that supports natural right.  But contrary to Strauss, this natural teleology in organic life is not a cosmic teleology of the heavenly bodies but an immanent teleology displayed in the goal-directed activity of living entities and processes.  This is the sort of teleology that Aristotle studied in his biological works.

Near the end of his life, Darwin read Aristotle's explanation of biological teleology in The Parts of Animals; and Darwin saw that he really was bringing back into science a teleological conception of living nature that was originally formulated by Aristotle.[10]  So Strauss and his students are wrong when they assume that Darwinian science denies the Aristotelian teleology necessary for natural right.

Aristotle and Darwin show us that it is possible to root natural right in an immanent teleology of living beings rather than a cosmic teleology of the universe.  Strauss himself points to something like this in one passage of Natural Right and History:

However indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions. . . . the fact that the atoms are beyond good and bad does not justify the inference that there is nothing by nature good or bad for any compound of atoms, and especially for those compounds which we call “men.” . . . We must distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are in accordance with human nature and therefore good for man, and those which are destructive of his nature or his humanity and therefore bad.  We are thus led to the notion of a life, a human life, that is good because it is in accordance with nature.[11]

If the good is the desirable, and the naturally good is the naturally desirable, and if the naturally desirable is rooted in our natural human instincts, then the question of natural right becomes the question of how best to understand the range of our instinctively natural desires.  This assumes an immanent teleology of human nature that does not require a cosmic teleology of the universe.  And while cosmic teleology has been refuted by modern natural science, the immanent teleology of evolved human nature can be supported by modern evolutionary science.

The Natural Science of Political Theory and Political Practice

If I am right about this conception of Darwinian natural right as part of a comprehensive natural science, Straussian scholars might wonder what difference this could make for their research and teaching, as largely devoted to the interpretation of classic texts in studying the theory and practice of politics.

I can respond with two illustrations.  First, if we are studying the political theory of the state of nature in the texts of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, we can adjudicate this debate among the political philosophers by looking to the account in Darwinian anthropology of the hunter-gatherer human ancestors in the evolutionary state of nature.  Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau studied carefully the European reports of what the American Indians in the New World were like, because, as Locke said, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” and so the American Indians provide “a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe.”[12]  Now we have 200 years of anthropological evidence and theorizing about the life of human foragers in the state of nature, which we can use to clarify and perhaps even resolve the debate between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.  My conclusion from this is that Darwinian anthropology shows that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.[13]  This conclusion is open to dispute.  But at least this illustrates how the Straussian study of political philosophy could draw knowledge from Darwinian science as a step towards the comprehensive science that Strauss desired.

As a second illustration, if we are studying the political practice of American statesmanship as manifest in Abraham Lincoln’s career, and if we have a special interest in explaining his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, we could apply the intellectual framework of “biopolitical science” as the Darwinian science of political animals.  This requires that we understand evolutionary political history as moving through three levels of analysis—the natural history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of animals within the group.  To fully comprehend the nature of politics within the natural order of the whole, we must understand the unity of political universals, the diversity of political cultures, and the individuality of political judgments.  We can see these three levels of biopolitical history manifest in Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation: we can see it as an event in the natural history of cooperation and conflict in the human species, in the cultural history of the debate over slavery in America, and in the individual history of Lincoln as a political actor in American history.[14]

If Strauss was right about the “need for an ultimate unity of science” that would solve the problem of natural right, then what I have sketched could move us toward this goal--the comprehensive science of nature that supports Darwinian natural right.

[1] Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise, “Skepticism, Experience, and Science,” The American Mind blog,
[2] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 1-8.
[3] Here I briefly state some points that I have elaborated elsewhere: Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 231-48; “Defending Darwinian Natural Right,” Interpretation 27 (2000): 263-77; “Darwinian Liberal Education,” Academic Questions 19, n. 4 (2006): 6-18; Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, ed. Kenneth C. Blanchard (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009), 104-111; “Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism,” The Intercollegiate Review 45 (Fall 2010): 22-32;  Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker, 4th ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2016), Chapter 14 on Strauss.
[4] See Roger Masters, The Nature of Politics (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1989); Masters, Beyond Relativism: Science and Human Values (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993); and Larry Arnhart, “Roger Masters: Natural Right and Biology,” in Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley, eds., Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 293-303.
[5] An audio of this course is available at the website of the Leo Strauss Center:  My quotation is found at 24-29 minutes into session 2.
[6] See Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), and Larry Arnhart, “Roger Scruton’s Fallacious Argument in On Human Nature,”
[7] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (London: J. Murray, 1871), vol. 1, pp. 54, 62, 70, 88; vol. 2, pp. 391-92).
[8] Darwin, Descent, vol. 1, p. 186.
[9] Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (New York: Free Press, 1994), 12, 14, 39, 59-63, 76-79.uhUHH
[10] See Allan Gotthelf, “Darwin on Aristotle,” in Gotthelf, Teleology, First Princiles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 345-69, and Larry Arnhart, “The Biology of Natural Right: Aristotle, Darwin, Strauss, and Rand,”
[11] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 94-95.
[12] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, secs. 49, 108.
[13] See Arnhart, Political Questions, 189-93, 228-36, 284-93.
[14] See Larry Arnhart, “Biopolitical Science,” in James E. Fleming and Sanford Levinson, eds., Evolution and Morality (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 221-265.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Elite Control of Gunpowder Weaponry Supports the Early Modern State

I have been writing a series of posts on Paul Bingham's social coercion theory as explaining the evolutionary history of what Locke called the executive power of the law of nature. I am doing this despite the fact that Bingham has no knowledge of Locke.

If the coercive threat of violence is the only solution to the problem of conflicts of interest, and thus the only way to secure non-kin social cooperation, then every human social order should depend upon armed coercive enforcement of law, and the scale of cooperation should expand in proportion to the scale of the weaponry for coercion.  This coercive power serves the special interests of an elite ruling class whenever the access to that power is restricted to the elite rulers.  That coercive power will serve the general interests of all or most members of society only when all or most individuals have some access to the weapons of coercion.

The evolutionary state of nature--the original human condition in stateless societies--was largely egalitarian and democratic because most or all adult individuals had access to the weapons of coercion for enforcing the norms of cooperation.  That original condition of liberty and equality was largely lost with the establishment of centralized bureaucratic power in states where ruling elites controlled the weapons of coercion.  A modern liberal democratic state can restore some of that original liberty and equality, in which government is directed to securing the natural rights of equal liberty, only if all or most individuals have some access to the weapons of coercion.  In this way, we see how every human society rests on Locke's executive power of the law of nature.

Another way of putting this is to say that humans have always had only those rights they could coercively defend, and in that sense might does make right.  Or, as Spinoza said, "The right of nature extends as far as its power" (Theological Political Treatise, 16.3).  That is, I think, the fundamental insight in Bingham's social coercion theory or Locke's theory of the natural executive power to  punish.

Here is a TED talk by Bingham and Joanne Souza explaining their social coercion theory:

A crucial turn in the history of weaponry that led to the emergence of the modern world arose from the invention of gunpowder (see Jack Kelly, Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics--The History of the Explosive that Changed the World [Basic Books, 2004].)

Gunpowder comes from grinding together the right combination of saltpeter (75%), charcoal (15%), and sulfur (10%).  It was first invented by the Chinese around 1100 CE.  Ignition turns the gunpowder's stored chemical energy into the thermal energy of flame and the mechanical energy of compressed gases.  Containers of some sort are needed to direct that energy and put it to work.

Chinese fireworks craftsmen designed the four basic forms of containment that constitute all the uses of gunpowder--bombs, incendiary weapons, rockets, and guns.  A bomb is created by putting gunpowder in a container sealed up and with a fuse, so that ignition generates enough pressure to blow up the container.  An incendiary weapon is created by putting gunpowder into a tube with one open end, so that the combustion produces a fiery spray.  A rocket is created when the burning powder drives the tube forward.  A gun is created when the powder is put in a tube with one end open and some object is put in the tube on top of the powder, so that when the powder burns, the expanding gases push the projectile out at a high rate of speed.

Gunpowder technology entered Europe sometime between 1200 and 1250 CE.  Advanced artillery and guns were developed between 1350 and 1500 CE.  This new weapons technology brought the collapse of the European feudal order of archaic states based on a small elite of armored warriors and kingly chiefs in their castles.  Gunpowder weaponry could defeat armored warriors, and gunpowder artillery could blow up castle walls.

The first guns invented in Europe were bombards--a three-ton barrel fired a marble ball weighing over 500 pounds that could smash the walls of a castle.

These new weapons were so expensive to build and operate that only powerful centralized states could use them to defeat the many small feudal states.  This improved coercive power supported the rise of early modern states in Europe and elsewhere.

This was the end of feudal knighthood.  Don Miguel de Cervantes was a European noble who had fought in some of the wars establishing early modern European states.  He expressed his scorn for the new gunpowder weapons through the words of his fictional knight, Don Quixote:
"Blessed were the times which lacked the dreadful fury of those diabolical engines. . . whose inventor I firmly believe is now receiving the reward for his devilish invention in Hell; an invention which allows a base and cowardly hand to take the life of a brave knight, in such a way that, without knowing how or why, when his valiant heart is full of courage, there comes some random shot--discharged perhaps by a man who fled in terror from the flash the accursed machine made in firing--and puts an end in a moment to the consciousness of one who deserved to enjoy life for many an age."
Once handguns became cheaper and easy to use--beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--they became weapons for common individuals to attack elite power, which brought a democratization of power.  I will turn to this in a future post on the American Revolution and Civil War.