Wednesday, August 12, 2020

COVID-19 in the Evolutionary History of Infectious Diseases (2): The Accidental Animal Origins of SARS-CoV-2

At about 7 p.m. on the evening of December 30, 2019, some samples from hospital patients in Wuhan, China, arrived at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  The Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention wanted Shi Zhengli's laboratory to decide whether there was a novel coronavirus in two hospital patients with an unusual form of pneumonia.  Shi Zhengli was at a conference in Shanghai.  The director of the Institute called her by telephone to tell her that she should return to Wuhan immediately (Qui 2020).

Shi was worried because this new coronavirus seemed to belong to the same family of viruses as the one that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which had infected over 8,000 people and killed almost 800 in 2002 and 2003.  In 2005, Shi had shown that the SARS coronavirus had probably originated in horseshoe bats in the southern, subtropical Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan, and the viruses had jumped from bats to humans, perhaps passing through an intermediate animal such as civets (a mongoose-like animal) (Li et al. 2005).  In 2017, Shi and her colleagues reported that after five years of surveillance of one horseshoe bat cave (Shiton Cave) in Yunnan province, they had found three new SARS-like coronaviruses that were capable of infecting human cells.  She warned that this showed the need for the world to be prepared for the future emergence of new SARS-like diseases (Hu et al. 2017).  Horseshoe bats are found mostly in tropical or subtropical areas, such as the southern provinces of China--Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan.  Consequently, Shi had never expected to find a new SARS-like coronavirus in central China, such as the Hubei province of Wuhan.  So, as she was travelling back to her lab in Wuhan, she thought to herself, "Could they have come from our lab?"  In fact, some people--including Donald Trump--have said that the new coronavirus that has caused COVID-19 escaped accidentally from her lab.  But Shi has denied this.

                                                    Provinces of China.  Wuhan is in Hubei Province.

        A Horseshoe Bat Found in the Southern Provinces of China (Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong)

Most of the newly emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (originating in animals).  And of these over 70% have their origin in wildlife.  For that reason, some scientists have warned that we are not doing enough to support wildlife disease surveillance like that done by Shi and her colleagues (Morens et al. 2020; Watsa 2020).

The three influenza pandemics of the 20th century--the Spanish flu of 1918, the Asian flu of 1957, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968--were all caused by viruses that originated in wild waterfowl.  The Spanish flu virus--H1N1--killed as many as 50 million people, which made it the deadliest pandemic in human history as measured by number of deaths.  (I have written previously about the Spanish flu pandemic.)  The Asian flu virus--H2N2--killed as many as 1 million people.  The Hong Kong flu virus--H3N2--killed at least 1 million.  All three viruses are strains of the genus influenza virus A.

If these pandemics were to occur today with a global population of 7.8 billion, the equivalent number of deaths would be 218 million for the Spanish flu, 3 million for the Asian flu, and over 2 million for the Hong Kong flu.  By comparison, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed 741,000 people globally (167,000 in the U.S.) as of today (August 12), which indicates that it is likely to be less deadly than these flu pandemics, certainly much less deadly than the Spanish flu.

The SARS outbreak in 2002 was the first emergence of a deadly coronavirus with pandemic potential.  Previously, coronaviruses were known mostly for causing common colds.  At first, scientists thought that the SARS coronavirus had jumped from Asian palm civets to humans.  But later Shi and her colleagues showed that the civet was actually an intermediary animal: the virus had passed from bats to civets and then to humans (Li et al. 2005).

                                                                     An Asian Palm Civet

Shi and others have identified and isolated SARS-like viruses in bats that closely resemble in their genetic sequencing the SARS viruses that have infected human beings.  But none of these coronaviruses in bats perfectly matches the human strains.  What this probably means is that the SARS-like viruses in bats and those infecting humans are evolutionary descendants of some ancestral viruses that split off from the bat virus some years ago.  Bats are good reservoirs for this evolution because they carry many different strains of the virus, and through recombination gene segments can be transferred and mixed between viruses, which provides a mechanism for rapidly generating variants that might happen to have the traits that allow them to infect human hosts.  This is likely what happened in the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic (Letko et al. 2020).  I have written previously about the evolution of SARS-CoV-2.

In less than two weeks after the patient samples had arrived at her lab in Wuhan, Shi and her colleagues had sequenced the genome of what would later be named SARS-CoV-2.  She published the sequencing through the World Health Organization on January 12, 2020.  

By January 22, the coronavirus had spread to major cities and provinces in China, with 521 confirmed cases and 17 deaths reported.  Confirmed cases were also reported in other countries, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.  

On January 23, the Chinese government ordered the lockdown of Wuhan--a sprawling city of 11 million people--and other cities in Hubei province in an attempt to quarantine the center of the coronavirus outbreak.  The lockdown was officially ended on April 8.  Although quarantining has a long history, this was the first time in history that a government had ordered the shutdown of such a large region and such a large population.  This Chinese lockdown set a pattern followed later by other governments around the world.  By March 28, 2.6 billion people--about one third of the world's population--were under some form of lockdown.  This caused a worldwide economic depression.

The human costs of the COVID-19 pandemic--the deaths from the virus, the social costs of the global depression, and the loss of liberty for people under lockdowns--have provoked people into a search for someone to blame.  And attention has focused on Shi Zhengli's lab in Wuhan.  First, it was charged that the Chinese had used Shi's lab to genetically engineer the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a bioweapon.  But studies of the DNA genome of the virus could not find any of the signs of the standard tools of genetic engineering.  Then some people speculated that Shi--now called the "bat woman"--had found the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a bat, brought it back to her lab, and there someone accidentally became infected with it and carried it out of the lab.

President Donald Trump has said that he has secret intelligence proving that the virus leaked out of Shi's lab.  In a recent interview with Science, Shi has denied this and demanded an apology from Trump (Cohen 2020).  For months after the beginning of the outbreak, Shi was "missing" in China.  But in recent weeks, she has been giving interviews to reporters.  A few days ago, reporters for NBC News were permitted to tour the Wuhan Institute of Virology and interview scientists.  The U.S. State Department has issued a statement saying that NBC News is being used by the Chinese government to propagate China's propaganda to cover up the role of the Wuhan lab in the coronavirus outbreak.

                                                                              Shi Zenghli

Originally, it was thought that since many of the people in Wuhan who first became infected with the virus had been to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, this must have been the place where the spillover from bats to humans (through some intermediary animal) first occurred.  In China, there is a cultural tradition favoring the eating of exotic wild animals.  At the seafood market, live wild animals were sold for consumption.  So this could have been the point of viral transmission. 

One of the wild animals sold in such markets is the pangolin.  Pangolins look like scaly anteaters.  They are considered a delicacy in China, and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine.  A coronavirus found in pangolins is very similar in its genome to SARS-CoV-2, which suggests the possibility that it could be the intermediary animal between bats and humans.

                                                                       The Pangolin

The Huanan Seafood Market was closed on January 1.  On February 24, the Chinese government banned all wildlife consumption and "wet markets."  Nevertheless, such bans will not stop the illegal trade in wild animals as long as there is a popular demand for them.

Shi has said, however, that many of the early infected patients had no association with the seafood market.  Moreover, her lab's study of the market could not find any SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acids in frozen animal samples.  She has concluded that the spillover did not occur in Wuhan or in Hubei Province.  It must have occurred in one of the southern provinces, and then some infected people brought it to Wuhan.

According to Shi, in her interview for Science (Cohen 2020), no one in her lab had ever seen SARS-CoV-2 until they received the clinical samples on December 30, 2019.  After they had completed the genetic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, they saw that it had 80% sequence identity to the three bat coronaviruses that they had isolated over the last 15 years.  They did not isolate the SARS-CoV-2 virus until January of 2020.  An isolated virus is a live virus that can grow in cultured cells in the laboratory.

On February 3, they published a paper reporting that SARS-CoV-2 was 96.2% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus named RaTG13, which they had found in a bat fecal sample collected in Yunnan province (Zhou et al. 2020)  But they had never isolated this bat coronavirus.  They had reported in publications (in 2013, 2016, and 2017) the three isolated strains of live SARS-related bat coronavirus.  If they had isolated SARS-CoV-2 before 2020, Shi suggests, they surely would have published this result, and so the lack of such publication should be evidence that they had not isolated it before 2020; and therefore it was not possible for anyone in the lab to be infected by it in 2019.

Shi explains that her lab had not paid much attention to the RaTG13 bat coronavirus prior to 2020 because it showed a low similarity to SARS-CoV, and they had not yet seen SARS-CoV-2.

Shi's study of the viruses carried by wild animals has been carried out in collaboration with Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance in New York.  They argue that such wildlife virus surveillance is the only way to work towards understanding, preventing, and controlling outbreaks of infectious viral diseases that originate in wild animals.  In April, however, the Trump Administration ordered the termination of their research funding from the National Institutes of Health.  Shi and Daszak have complained that this makes no sense, because their collaborative research is the only way to learn how to prevent future outbreaks.  They estimate that there are more than 5,000 coronavirus strains in bats waiting to be discovered.  "Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks," Shi says.  "We must find them before they find us."

But is it realistic to expect that we will ever be able to find these deadly viruses before they find us?  If the evolution of new viral pathogens from bats and other animals is as accidental, as random, as it appears to be, does that make it unlikely that scientists like Shi and Daszak will ever discover the next SARS-CoV-2 before it can spread among human beings?

After 15 years of research, studying hundreds of viruses found in bat caves, Shi and her colleagues still cannot trace the exact evolutionary history of the SARS-CoV virus that caused the SARS pandemic in 2002.  So, can't we expect they will have the same trouble in tracing the history of the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic?

Or could their research at least teach us how to lower the likelihood of viral spillovers from animals to humans--perhaps, for example, by shutting down the markets for live wildlife?


Cohen, Jon. 2020. "Wuhan Coronavirus Hunter Shi Zhengli Speaks Out." Science 369: 487-488.

Hu, Ben, et al. 2017. "Discovery of a Rich Gene Pool of Bat SARS-Related Coronaviruses Provides New Insights into the Origin of SARS Coronavirus." PLoS Pathogens 13 (11): E1006698.

Letko, Michael, et al. 2020. "Bat-Borne Virus Diversity, Spillover, and Emergence." Nature Reviews Microbiology 18 (August): 461-471.

Li, Wendong, et al. 2005. "Bats Are Natural Reservoirs of SARS-Like Coronaviruses." Science 310 (October 28): 676-679.

Morens, David M., et al. 2020. "Escaping Pandora's Box--Another Novel Coronavirus." The New England Journal of Medicine 382:1253-1254.

Qui, Jane. 2020. "How China's 'Bat Woman' Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus." Scientific American (June).

Watsa, Mrinalini. 2020. "Rigorous Wildlife Disease Susrvellance." Science 369 (July 10): 145-47.

Zhou, Peng. 2020. "A Pneumonia Outbreak Associated with a New Coronavirus of Probable Bat Origin." Nature 579 (March 12): 270-273.

Friday, August 07, 2020

COVID-19 in the Evolutionary History of Infectious Disease: Will It Kill Liberal Globalism?

Will the COVID-19 pandemic kill liberal globalism?  

According to Curtis Yarvin, writing for the Claremont Institute's blog American Mind, it should.  Shortly after the report of the first case of a coronavirus infection in the U.S. in late January--a Washington state man who had travelled to Wuhan, China--Yarwin wrote an essay entitled "RIP Globalism, Dead of Coronavirus," in which he claimed that the only sensible response to the danger of a pandemic reaching the U.S. was to stop all air travel across the Pacific and across the Atlantic.  He recommended "suspending 1492," so that the two great hemispheres of the planet would be disconnected, just as they were before Columbus's voyage to the New World.  No only that, but every country should be totally isolated for ever, with no one permitted to travel into or out of any country.  All international trade should be stopped.  Every nation would be economically and culturally self-contained.  

He did not expect this to happen, because he saw that the internationalist belief in the goodness of our interconnected, globalized world is too strong to allow for the wisdom of an isolationist vision.  But he foresaw that the internationalist failure to close all national borders to the spread of the coronavirus would bring the death of millions of people around the world, which could lead more people to recognize the virtues of an isolationist world.  This could be something like Japan's policy of sakoku under the Tokugawa shogunate, in which both trade and travel across Japan's borders were generally prohibited.

Yarvin--who wrote under the name "Mencius Moldbug" for his blog Unqualified Reservations--is one of the most influential of the younger alt-right theorists who argue that liberal democracy has failed, and that what we need is the authoritarian rule of a monarch or a corporate CEO, following a policy of isolationist nationalism that scorns internationalist globalism (Tait 2019).  Yarvin was the person who recommended to Michael Anton that he read Bronze Age Pervert, another young alt-right thinker; and so this seems to have been a turning point in the move of the Claremont Institute towards the alt-right.  (I have written a series of posts on Anton and Bronze Age Pervert here and here.)

Yarvin is obviously right about how air travel in a globalized world has promoted the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus around the world.  But I do not see how this proves that liberal globalism has failed, and that it needs to be replaced by a world of isolationist authoritarian regimes.  

We need to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic fits into the whole evolutionary history of infectious diseases from the Paleolithic to the present.  Ron Barrett and George Armelagos have written that history in their book An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections (2013).  In the first sentence of their book, they declare: "Microbes are the ultimate critics of modernity" (1, 115).  This introduces their Rousseauian epidemiological critique of modernity: the history of how human civilization moved away from the hunter-gatherer state of nature through the Agricultural Revolution and then the Industrial Revolution appears to be progressive improvement; but in fact, Barrett and Armelagos say, modern human beings suffer more from microbial infectious diseases than did their hunter-gatherer ancestors, which shows that the microbes--the bacteria, the viruses, and other microparasites--have evolved through mutation and reproduction to be the true masters of the earth.  This is an unnatural history because it moves away from the original natural condition of human beings as foragers in the Paleolithic.

That our modern globalized world is now suffering a catastrophic pandemic caused by a newly emerging coronavirus that has evolved to exploit the global interconnectedness of our world to infect us and kill us seems to show that.  This might seem to confirm Yarvin's argument that the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the vulnerability of globalist modernity. 

But I will argue that this evolutionary history of microbial diseases should teach us that while infectious disease has plagued humanity throughout all of history, and while newly emerging infectious diseases continue to threaten us today, a modern liberal globalized world can reduce, although never fully eliminate, that threat, so that life in our modern globalized world can be generally safer and healthier for more people than ever before in history.  This will be true, however, only as long as we preserve the freedom of a liberal social order that allows for the innovation necessary to meet the challenges that come from infectious diseases.

We can see that history as passing through four eras--the prehistoric foraging era, the agrarian era, the era of the industrial revolution, and the contemporary globalist era.  To fully explain this history, we need to understand both the microscopic and the macroscopic determinants of human infections.  

At the microscopic level, we try to understand how bacteria, viruses, and other microparasites have evolved to succeed (or fail) as human pathogens who must parasitize human beings for the survival and reproduction of the pathogen.  We should keep in mind, however, as I have indicated in a previous post, that virologist Marilyn Roossinck (2011, 2015, 2016) is probably right in suggesting that most bacteria and viruses are not harmful human parasites, because most of them have evolved to have either commensal (not harmful to the human host) or mutualistic (mutually beneficial) relationships.  For example, most of the bacteria and viruses in the human gut are necessary for human health.

It is only in the last century or two that modern science has given us some understanding of this microscopic world.  Some ancient natural philosophers--like Lucretius--have understood, however, that infectious disease can be caused by invisible pathogenic "seeds"--an intimation of the germ theory of disease.  I have written about this here and here.

At the macroscopic level, we can understand infectious diseases as social diseases, in the sense that they depend upon three social factors of human life--subsistence, settlement, and social organization.  The modes of human subsistence (such as foraging or farming), human settlement (such as nomadic bands or permanent urban living), and human social organization (such as egalitarian leveling or hierarchical classes) will influence our vulnerability to infectious diseases.


For most of human evolutionary history, our ancestors lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, in what the evolutionary psychologists call the "environment of evolutionary adaptation" (EEA).  Their mode of subsistence was predominantly gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals.  Their mode of settlement was for small bands of individuals to set up temporary campsites for no more than a few days or months at a time, so that they could move their camp many times a year to find the best locations for hunting and gathering. Their mode of social organization was to live in small groups where the adults were roughly equal, in that some individuals exercised informal leadership, but their power was checked by others who resisted any attempts at dominance.

The early modern political philosophers called this the "state of nature," and they disagreed about whether it was a state of peace and plenty or a state of war and poverty.  Thomas Hobbes declared that it was war and poverty, which made it a condition of desperate unhappiness.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that it was peace and plenty, which made it the happiest condition for humanity.  Many social scientists today continue to take one side or the other in this debate.  So, for example, Marshall Sahlins said that Rousseau was right because our nomadic forager ancestors lived in the "original affluent society."  But others--like Steve Pinker--have said that Hobbes was right because our ancestors lived lives ruined by violence and scarcity.

Barrett and Armelagos say that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  But while they sometimes reject Sahlins' conception of the "original affluent society," they often endorse it and adopt a Rousseauian position (Barrett and Armelagos 2013, 1, 17, 22, 27-28, 111, 115).  They say nothing about John Locke's understanding of the state of nature, and so they do not consider my argument that Locke's account of the state of nature was mostly true, as confirmed by the anthropological evidence that we have today, and free from the mistakes of both Hobbes and Rousseau.  I have argued that hereherehere, and here.

The Rousseauianism of Barrett and Armelagos has a biblical dimension.  As the epigram for their chapter on the Agricultural Revolution (29), they quote from Genesis 3:17-19: "I have placed a curse on the ground.  All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.  It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains.  All your life you will sweat to produce food, until your dying day."  Of course, this is God's curse on Adam and Eve after their sin and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  The implication is that the prehistoric foraging life was the Garden of Eden for humanity--the Paradise that has been lost.

Barrett and Armelagos are certainly Rousseauian in their claim that foragers were generally healthier and less susceptible to infectious diseases than the later human beings living in agricultural and urban industrial societies.  They give three reasons for this.  First, hunting and gathering produced a wide diversity of foods, and this nutritious diet built up their immune systems that protected them from pathogens.  Second, because they lived in widely dispersed small groups that never settled in one spot for long, acute infections that require large and dense host populations were not sustainable.  Third, since foragers shared their food and other resources equally, there was no lower class of impoverished malnourished people who would be susceptible to infectious diseases.

I will not contest the last two points.  But I am skeptical about the first point.  They stress the importance of this point about nutrition among foragers: "Closely tied to human immunity, nutrition has always been our chief line of defense against infectious diseases.  Conversely, malnutrition is the chief determinant of immunosuppression worldwide" (20).

As one kind of evidence that foragers had a dietary diversity that supported their nutritional health, Barrett and Armelagos cite Kim Hill and A. Magdalena Hurtado's Ache Life History (1996) on the Ache foraging people of Paraguay.  During their forest living life, before they had contact with outsiders, the Ache hunted 56 animal species and gathered 44 plant species, which Barrett and Armelagos see as showing a remarkable diversity in their diet.  Barrett and Armelagos are silent, however, about Hill and Hurtado's observations about food shortages and infectious diseases among the Ache.  They observe that the Ache and other foraging groups often complain about their hunger.  They also suffer from poor health: illness and disease accounts for about a fourth of all deaths.  They suffer from a variety of viral infections.  They show the symptoms of diseases such as malaria, degue, amebic dysentery, and staphylococcal infections.  Hill and Hurtado conclude from this that Sahlins' "original affluent society" is a "farcical myth in modern anthropology" (320).

Barrett and Armelagos are enthusiastic proponents of the "Paleolithic Diet" argument of Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner (Eaton and Konner 1985; Eaton et al. 1988).  The argument is that modern human beings are biologically adapted for the diet of their paleolithic ancestors, and that the mismatch between the modern diet and the paleolithic diet is responsible for the modern lifestyle diseases.  This has led a lot of people to try to revive their inner cave man by eating a "paleo diet" of plants and meats that might have been consumed by ancient foragers.

Barrett and Armelagos are silent, however, about the many devastating criticisms of this argument (Jabr 2013; Thompson et al. 2013; Turner and Thompson 2013; Zuk 2014).  First, modern humans have evolved over the past 7,000 years, so that their dietary adaptations are different from their foraging ancestors.  As one example of this, the cultural history of dairying societies created an environment in which  many people evolved a genetic mutation that allowed them to digest lactose--the sugar in milk--in adulthood.  In people without this mutation, the gene encoding lactase--the enzyme that breaks down lactose sugars in milk--shuts down after infancy when children are weaned from mother's milk.  Consuming milk as an adult is a Neolithic adaptation shaped by human niche construction.

A second criticism of the "paleo diet" is that today we don't have access to the foods that ancient foragers ate, because the plants and animals that we consume today are radically different from their ancient ancestral species--by artificial selection the domesticated plants and animals of today did not exist in the Paleolithic.  For example, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale are all different cultivars of a single species--Brassica oleracea--that has been altered by human selection.

A third criticism is that anthropological studies of foraging societies over the past two centuries show a great diversity and flexibility in their diets that depends upon their socioecological circumstances.  So, for example, the diet of Inuit (Eskimo) foragers who live on fish and sea mammals will differ from the diet of foragers in the tropical rain forests of South America.

A fourth criticism is that there is some paleoarchaeological evidence that ancient foragers suffered from some of the diseases that are often assumed to be products of our distinctively modern diet and lifestyle.  For example, there is some evidence for atherosclerosis--arteries clogged with cholersterol and fats--in some ancient mummies buried by hunter-gatherers (Thompson et al. 2013; Wann et al. 2019).

Barrett and Armelagos do not mention, much less answer, these criticisms.


About 7,000 years ago, some people in the Tigris-Euphrates valley began to settle into permanent settlements and to draw their food not just from foraging (hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants) but also from farming with domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals.  About 5,000 years ago, they began to form the first city-states (such as Uruk) that had formal governments with hierarchies of state authorities.  

This has generally been celebrated by historians and anthropologists as the Agricultural Revolution or the Neolithic Revolution--as the most progressive turn in human history because it allowed for urban civilization.  But Rousseauian anthropologists have lamented this as the biggest mistake in human history because human beings lost the freedom, equality, and healthy lifestyle of the foraging life, and it brought the tyrannical rule of kings, priests, and bureaucrats, constant warfare, oppressive taxation, slavery, and the emergence of acute infectious diseases.  I have written about James Scott's version of this argument.  I have also written about Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus as developing a similar Rousseauian argument.

Barrett and Armelagos reinforce that argument by claiming that the Agricultural Revolution brought a "domestication of pathogens" that caused an unprecedented increase in acute infectious diseases to the point that they became the primary cause of human death.  They identify this as the First Epidemiological Transition.

The domestication of pathogens means that human villages and cities based on farming created selective conditions for the evolution and spread of infectious diseases.  The human patterns of subsistence, settlement, and social organization created the circumstances favoring microorganisms that could leap from nonhuman animals to human hosts, and then sustain human-to-human transition in human communities that were large, dense, and susceptible to infection.  The evidence for this can be found in the skeletons of Neolithic people showing the signs of malnutrition and infectious disease--particularly, among low-status people.  Because they lived in permanent and crowded farming communities in which people were in close proximity to their domesticated animals, this created opportunities for microscopic parasites to jump from animals to human beings and then spread widely through the communities.

Prior to 1492, however, infectious disease pandemics could not become fully global, because there was little communication between the Americas (the New World) and the rest of the Earth.  But then Columbus' voyage brought a globalization of human disease ecology--for the first time in history, infectious diseases could move around the entire world.  When the Europeans introduced new infectious pathogens into the New World, tens of millions of indigenous American people died because they had no immunity to the new parasites.  It worked in the other direction as well--for example, syphilis from the New World spread quickly throughout Eurasia.

This globalization of infectious disease was the most harmful expression of the First Epidemiological Transition.  This is what made the global COVID-19 pandemic possible.  And that's why Yarvin recommends "suspending 1492."


Up to the end of the 19th century, infectious diseases were the primary cause of death, and most of these deaths were in childhood.  Between 1800 and 1840, 64 per cent of children in London died before reaching age 25.  The common experience of parents burying their children forced people to ask deep questions about the meaning of love and death in a world where most children did not live to adulthood.  In a previous post, I have written about Charles Darwin's struggle to understand the death of his daughter Annie at the age of 10.  She died of tuberculosis, which was then called "consumption," and there was no cure for it; nor was there any understanding of how it was caused by bacteria.

But then by the early part of the 20th century, childhood mortality had dropped dramatically, and the average human life expectancy rose.  As a result, the world human population grew from about 800 million to 1.6 billion in 1910--and finally to almost 8 billion today.  During this time, chronic degenerative diseases (like heart disease and cancer) replaced infectious diseases as the primary causes of death.  

This is what Barrett and Armelagos identify as the Second Epidemiological Transition.  There is a debate over its causes.  But they think the primary causes were better nutrition and the "sanitary reform movement" that cleaned up the water supply and the food.

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, a long line of antibiotics--such as penicillin and the sulfa drugs--began to save hundreds of millions of lives.  But then the overuse of antibiotics created a selective environment for the evolution of pathogens with antibiotic resistance, which is one of the causes of the Third Epidemiological Transition.


Within three years after the first use of penicillin as the "wonder drug" against bacterial infections, resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus appeared in British and North American hospitals.  This began an evolutionary arms race in which the pathogens seem to be winning, because they evolve antibiotic resistance faster than we can develop new antibiotics.

Another contributor to this new epidemiological transition is that the unhealthy diets and lifestyles of people in the modern world make them prone to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, and when this is combined with an aging population, ever more people are vulnerable to infectious disease.

The circumstances of the contemporary globalist era also create opportunities for the evolutionary emergence of new infectious pathogens.  These new pathogens usually originate in nonhuman animals--they are "zoonotic."  Some people have to hunt wild animals for food and money, and so they are prone to come into contact with infected animals; and on rare occasions, the pathogen can jump to the human host. These newly infected people live in densely populated cities where the pathogen can spread by human-to-human transmission.  Some of the infected human beings be international travelers who can carry the pathogen all over the world within a few days.  Finally, there is a large population of elderly people with pre-existing chronic diseases who are more likely to contract and spread the disease and also more likely to die from it.

All of these circumstances apply to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be continued . . .


Barrett, Ron, and George Armelagos. 2013. An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eaton, S. B., and M. Konner. 1985. "Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications." New England Journal of Medicine 312:283-89.

Eaton, S. B., M. Shostak, and M. Konner. 1988. The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living. New York: Harper & Row.

Hill, Kim, and A. Magdalena Hurtado. 1996.  Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Jabr, Ferris. 2013. "How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet is Half-Baked." Scientific American, June 3.

Roossinck, Marilyn. 2011. "The Good Viruses: Viral Mutualistic Symbioses." Nature Reviews Microbiology 9 (February): 99-108.

__________.  2015. "Move Over, Bacteria! Viruses Make Their Mark as Mutualistic Microbial Symbionts." Journal of Virology 89 (13): 6532-6535.

____________.  2016.  Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, Randall, et al. 2013.  "Atherosclerosis across 4000 Years of Human History: The Horus Study of Four Ancient Populations." The Lancet 381 (issue 9873): 1211-1222.

Turner, Bethany L., and Amanda Thompson. 2013. "Beyond the Paleolithic Prescription: Incorporating Diversity and Flexibility in the Study of Human Diet Evolution." Nutrition Reviews 71 (8): 501-510.

Yarvin, Curtis. 2020. "RIP Globalism, Dead of Coronavirus." The American Mind. February 1.

Wann, L. Samuel, et al. 2019. "Atherosclerosis in 16th-Century Greenlandic Inuit Mummies." JAMA Netw Open 2(12):e1918270.

Zuk, Marlene. 2013. Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. New York: Norton.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Darwinian Conservatism, Darwinian Liberalism, and the Welfare State: A Reply to Govert Schuller

During my teaching career at Northern Illinois University, I was privileged to have many smart students who taught me a lot.  I designed my courses around three requirements: peer-response journal writing, class discussions, and a final argumentative essay.  For each week there was a reading assignment.  Each student had to bring to the first class each week a journal entry--two typed pages--on the reading for that week.  The journal entry would answer a series of questions.  What is the author saying?  Does the author present good evidence and arguments to support his position?  Or is there an alternative position that is more persuasive?  Each student would bring three copies of this journal entry--one for me and two for the two members of the student's journal group.  Then, at the second class meeting of the week, students would bring two one-page responses to the two journal entries they had received at the first class meeting.  In these responses, the students would express their points of agreement or disagreement with other students in their journal group.  This journal writing guaranteed that each student came to class prepared: they had not only read the assigned reading, but they had also thought about it in a critical way; and so they were ready to engage in a lively class discussion.

I never lectured for long periods.  Instead, I raised questions to stimulate class discussion.  And often my questions came from the students' journal writing.  The only requirement for the discussions was that the students had to support their positions with evidence and argumentation.  Occasionally, some of the assigned reading would be some writing of mine, and the students were free to disagree with me.  (This pedagogy of Socratic questioning is conveyed in my book Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.)

The final requirement for each of my courses was a paper that I called an "argumentative essay."  Each student would take up some controversial question that had come up in the readings or the class discussions.  The writer would have to develop at least three arguments supporting the author's answer to the question.  The writer would also have to state, and answer, at least two objections to the writer's position.

Typically, by the end of the semester, each student would have written at least 65 typed pages for the journals and the final paper.  Consequently, the students had a lot of practice in writing clearly and rigorously about some of the deepest questions in political science.

I was reminded of this this week when I saw that one of my former students--Govert Schuller--had just published two of his essays for me at his blog "Alpheus."  The first one--"Darwinian Conservatism and the Liberal Welfare State"--was written for my course on "Biopolitics and Human Nature" in the spring of 2013.  The second--"Nietzsche's Reluctant Acceptance of Liberal Democracy (and Later Rejection)"--was written for my seminar on "Nietzsche and Politics," also in the spring of 2013.

One of the readings for "Biopolitics and Human Nature" was my book Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.  In his paper, Schuller criticizes my argument in that book.  Darwinian biology supports conservatism, I argued, in five ways.  (1) It supports the conservative view of ordered liberty as rooted in natural desires, customary traditions, and prudential judgments.  (2)  It supports the conservative view of the moral sense as fundamental for the moral order of liberty.  (3)  It supports the conservative view of sexual differences, family life, and parental care as fundamental for the social order of liberty.  (4) It supports the conservative view of property as fundamental for the economic order of liberty.  (5) And it supports the conservative view of limited government as fundamental for the political order of liberty.

Schuller agrees with me that a good social order must conform to the natural desires of our evolved human nature, and that the utopian socialist and Marxist ideologies must be rejected insofar as they deny that evolved human nature.  And yet he makes three arguments to show that a Darwinian account of human nature does not necessarily support conservatism.

First, he claims that my criticism of utopian leftist thinking is a straw-man argument, because there are realistic leftist positions that are not utopian--particularly, the welfare-state liberalism of European social democracy, as manifested in countries like the Netherlands.

Second, he claims that I do not look at the comparative research that shows that welfare-state regimes like the Netherlands can satisfy the twenty natural desires.  Thus, I ignore the evidence that by many measurements of social health, the European social democracies rank higher than more conservative regimes like the United States.

Third, he disagrees with my suggestion that the ranking of the natural desires must be rightly left to the judgment of individuals, and so a social order cannot properly enforce a prescribed ranking.  On the contrary, he thinks that Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs is a good ranking of our natural desires--starting with physiological needs and moving up to security needs, then social needs, and finally self-actualization.  Moreover, he asserts that the European social democracies do a good job of securing the basic biological needs (food, health, and shelter), while also securing the conditions for satisfying the other needs as well.  This is clearly seen, he thinks, in the Netherlands.

What Schuller does not see is that my Darwinian conservatism is a liberal conservatism that can embrace a liberal welfare state.  In previous posts, I have written (here) about Darwinian conservatism as a fusion of traditionalist conservatism (like that of Russell Kirk) and classical liberalism (like that of Friedrich Hayek).  Classical liberals like Hayek reject pure socialism and communism because these systems deny the individual liberty necessary for a free society.  But liberals like Hayek can endorse those welfare state policies that are compatible with individual liberty.  One can see this in the third part of Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, which is entitled "Freedom in the Welfare State."

As I have argued (here), the welfare state systems that one sees in the European social democracies are actually capitalist welfare states with private property and free markets.  And while these welfare state regimes do restrain individual liberty in many ways, they are largely free societies.  Schuller points to this in describing how the European welfare state secures the natural human desires: "A right to work and a minimum living wage would take care of the basic needs, including housing, and a non-corrupt government can provide safety, health insurance and affordable education.  At the same time there should be a maximum of freedom for people to pursue their social, romantic, vocational, economic, creative and spiritual needs."

When Eduard Bernstein, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party, first defended social welfare policies as "evolutionary socialism," he was criticized by the Marxists as a "revisionist."  Rosa Luxemburg complained that his so-called socialism was really a "variety of liberalism."

That she was right about this should be clear from looking at the Human Freedom Index--devised by the Cato Institute as an empirical measurement of liberty as defined by classical liberals like Hayek--and noticing that the European social democracies (including the Netherlands) rank high on that index.  As I have said in previous posts (here), this shows the human progress towards social orders that secure individual liberty

In my Nietzsche seminar, we read texts from the three periods of Nietzsche's writing--early (The Birth of Tragedy), middle (Human, All Too Human), and late (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil).  We saw that Human, All Too Human differs from much of his earlier and later writing in two ways.  First, he embraces a Darwinian evolutionary science: "everything has evolved" (HATH, secs. 2-3).  And he shows a moderate acceptance of liberal democratic politics and institutions, while strongly rejecting socialism.

Schuller chose to write about this second point.  He rightly sees in Human, All Too Human a "qualified endorsement of liberal democracy" as "the least bad form of government."  And he also rightly sees Nietzsche turning away from this in his later writing:
"if such ideas like democracy and human rights are tossed, then he can 'overcome' his previous reluctant acceptance of liberal democracy and go all out with a cruel, self-assertive, self-legislating, 'value-creating' (BGE, 260) upper class and reduce the rest of mankind to the status of Untermensch to be exploited, which is fine because exploitation 'belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will of life' (BGE, 259).  Here we can unfortunately see the foreshadows of a fascist ideology."
As I have indicated in a previous post (here), I believe that Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism in Human, All Too Human can be shown to be superior--morally, politically, and intellectually--to the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his later writings.  That is the best answer to the Nazi and fascist interpreters of Nietzsche (like Martin Heidegger).

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Mary Trump on Donald Trump: The Man and the Myth Created by Fred Trump

One of Donald Trump's favorite statements is "Nobody knows more about [fill in the blank] than me."

Trump receives a perfect score on a mental acuity test: "Person. Woman. Man. Camera, TV"  Amazing!  What a genius!  Joe Biden could never do that!

Mary Trump is Donald's niece--the daughter of Fred Trump, Jr., Donald's oldest sibling.  In her new book--Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man--she explains how Donald's father created his mental disorders and his myth of himself as the self-made successful businessman--who knows more about everything than anybody.  In doing that, she supports two of the themes in my past commentary on Trump--the biopolitical study of his personality and the Aristotelian study of his rhetorical myth.  This also illustrates the importance of understanding the individual history of political actors for biopolitical science.

In this one hour interview with George Stephanopoulos, Mary speaks about most of the main points in her book.

In a way, Mary's book is less about Donald Trump that it is about Fred Trump--his father.  Speaking from her knowledge of the Trump family and her knowledge as a psychologist with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she says that Fred Trump was a "high-functioning sociopath" (24).  He had no real human feeling for anyone.  He was incapable of empathy.  He cared only about what was important to him--his real-estate business.  He was interested in other people only if they could help him in his business.

Fred did not think it was his job to care for young children.  He was not much interested in his two daughters--Maryanne and Elizabeth--because as women they were inferior.  He was more interested in his sons--Freddy, Donald, and Robert--but only if they could work in his business and show the "killer" personality necessary for business success.  He made all of his children uncomfortable with either expressing or confronting deep emotions, because he scorned this as showing weakness.  Being a "killer" meant being invulnerable.

Fred became a fan of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, and he joined Peale's Marble Collegiate Church, although he rarely attended.  He had not read the book, but he liked the idea in the title--that the key to success was to always think positive.  Mary calls this his "toxic positivity"--the insistence that the best response to human suffering is to declare that everything's just great.  Fred's wife was sick for much of her life.  Because of her osteoporosis, her bones were so brittle that she often suffered excruciating pain from broken bones.  Whenever she was suffering, Fred would say something like "Everything's great.  Right. Toots?  You just have to think positive," and then he would leave her alone with her pain.  Mary repeats that line more than once.  It's even the last sentence of the book (93, 161, 211).

Fred hoped that his oldest son--Freddy (Mary's father)--would succeed in his business and carry on the Trump empire.  But when Freddy did not satisfy his expectations, he demeaned him as a failure.  Freddy enjoyed flying, and he became a pilot for TWA, but his father ridiculed this as an unimportant job.  Freddy was forced to quit that job because of his alcoholism.  His health suffered from the effects of his excessive drinking and smoking.  He died at the age of 42 in a hospital with no one from the family around him.  On the night that he died, Donald and Elizabeth went out to see a movie.

Once Freddy began to fall out of his father's favor, Donald saw the chance to take his place as the manager of the Trump businesses.  His father had built his empire of rental housing in Brooklyn, but he had never tried to enter the more glamorous real-estate world of Manhattan.  So when Donald began building projects in Manhattan, and became famous as a wildly successful builder in Manhattan in the early 1980s, this fulfilled his father's desire for recognition, although his father always told the news media that he had done little to help his son, and so Donald's success was all his own.

Until a few years ago, Mary herself believed this story of Donald as the self-made billionaire businessman with a genius for making deals.  But then one day in 2017, she answered the door at her house and met Susanne Craig, a reporter for the New York Times.  Craig told her that she was part of a team of reporters investigating the financial history of the Trump family.  When Fred Trump died in 1999, there was a long legal battle over the inheritance of his estate, because Mary and her brother had had their father's portion of the inheritance taken away from them.  They finally were forced to accept an unfair settlement based on false estimates of Trump's worth.  The New York Times reporters believed that the documents collected by Mary's lawyers could reveal the truth about Trump's financial history.  At first, Mary refused to cooperate.  Finally, she agreed, and she was able to deliver 19 banker's boxes of documents from her lawyer's office to the reporters.  This was crucial for the stunning revelations in the New York Times article published on October 2, 2018.

This was the longest article (almost 14,000 words) in the history of the New York Times, and it earned a Pulitzer Prize.  It showed that for decades, Fred Trump had been using shell companies to channel almost $1 billion to his children without having to pay gift taxes.  Donald has said that "my father never gave me much money."  This is a lie, because Donald at age 3 began receiving money from his father, and by the time he was 8 years old, he was a millionaire.  Donald received the equivalent of $413 million in today's dollars.  Moreover, his father bailed him out in all of his projects in Manhattan and Atlantic City when he could not pay his debts.  This showed that Trump was a failure in all of his business ventures, and it was only his father's money that hid the depth of his failures.

This supports Mary's claim in her book that Donald is utterly incompetent in doing anything other than shameless self-promotion of his myth of success.  As I have argued in a previous post, this refutes the rhetorical enthymeme that ran through his presidential campaign of 2016:

Major premise: Because of stupid politicians, America no longer wins; and America will not win again until a successful businessman who know how to win is elected president.

Minor premise: Donald Trump is unique in his business success and his prudence in knowing how to win, because he is a self-made multi-billionaire.

Conclusion: Therefore, Americans need to elect Trump president.

Even without the evidence from the 2018 New York Times article, one might have expected that voters in 2016 would have seen Trump's extraordinary record of 6 bankruptcies as exposing the falsity of his myth.  But the brazenness of his deceptive rhetoric was powerful enough to hide the truth.

As president, Donald has continued to lie about his intelligence and success despite the obvious evidence of his mental incompetence and failure.  Of course, his very success in lying so shamelessly testifies to his skill for rhetorical manipulation--the kind of skill that is often displayed by a narcissistic psychopath.

In previous posts, I have written about Trump's grandiose narcissism (here), about psychopaths (here and here), and about how how Trump's rhetorical success shows some of the techniques of "chimpanzee politics" (here).

Here are the diagnostic criteria for "Narcissistic Personality Disorder" in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
"A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
"1.  Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
"2.  Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
"3.  Believes that he or she is 'special' and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
"4.  Requires excessive admiration.
"5.  Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations or especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
"6.  Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
"7.  Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
"8.  Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
"9.  Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes."
Mary says that Donald meets all nine criteria.  She also believes, however, that Donald is even more complicated in that he also satisfies the criteria for antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy), dependent personality disorder, some learning disabilities, and perhaps a self-induced sleep disorder (12-13).

But if he is so disordered, then how has he managed to survive and even succeed--to the point of becoming president of the United States?  Mary's answer is that he has been "essentially institutionalized" for most of his adult life.  First his father and then the people in government have sheltered him from the consequences of his disordered mind and behavior.  He has never had to live in the real world.

Mary's ultimate explanation is that Donald is the product of his father's abusive parenting:
"Nothing is ever good enough.  This is far beyond garden-variety narcissism; Donald is not simply weak, his ego is a fragile thing that must be bolstered every moment because he knows deep down that he is nothing of what he claims to be.  He knows that he has never been loved" (198).
"Though Donald's fundamental nature hasn't changed, since his inauguration the amount of stress he's under has changed dramatically.  It's not the stress of the job, because he isn't doing the job--unless watching TV and tweeting insults count.  It's the effort to keep the rest of us distracted from the fact that he knows nothing--about politics, civics, or simple human decency--that requires an enormous amount of work" (199).
"Every time you hear Donald talking about how something is the greatest, the best, the biggest, the most tremendous (the implication being that he made them so), you have to remember that the man speaking is still, in essential ways, the same little boy who is desperately worried that he, like his older brother, is inadequate and that he, too, will be destroyed for his inadequacy.  At a very deep level, his bragging and false bravado are not directed at the audience in front of him but at his audience of one: his long-dead father" (202).
"Donald withdraws to his comfort zones--Twitter, Fox News--casting blame from afar, protected by a figurative or literal bunker.  He rants about the weakness of others even as he demonstrates his own.  But he can never escape the fact that he is and always will be a terrified little boy" (210). 
In previous posts (here), I have argued that the bad character of a politician really does matter.  Conservative Republicans used to believe that, but now those who have embraced Trump no longer believe that.  There are some Republicans, however, who do believe that Trump's bad character--his lack of any moral or intellectual virtues--does matter.  Some of them are supporting the "Lincoln Project"--a group of leading Republicans who are sponsoring political ads recommending that Republicans should vote for Biden and against Trump--and against the Republican leaders who have enabled Trump.  For example, Jimmy Tosh is a wealthy lifelong Republican in Tennessee who has often contributed to Republican candidates, but now he is contributing to the Lincoln Project.  He was recently quoted as saying "I agree with 80% of the things he does.  I just cannot stand a liar."

Mary Trump's book supports this position by showing the depth of his bad character.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What Jane Goodall Has Taught Us About Biopolitical History


Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Jane Goodall's arrival at the Gombe Stream Preserve in Tanzania on July 14, 1960.  There she initiated the first long-term study of a wild chimpanzee group.  Remarkably, she was only 26 years old; and she did not even have a college degree. She supervised the work at Gombe until 1986.  Others have continued the work at Gombe up to the present.

By the early 1970s, the National Geographic Society had crafted Goodall into one of the celebrated scientists of the 20th century--mostly through its National Geographical TV documentaries.

I can now see that Goodall was crucial in teaching me that a biopolitical science of political animals (including humans and chimps) would have to move through three levels of evolutionary history in complex interaction: the genetic history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of animals within the group.

In 1975, I read Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which planted in my mind the idea of developing a biopolitical philosophy that would be both Aristotelian and Darwinian.  Then, in 1980, I read Kenneth Bock's Human Nature and History, which was one of the first critiques of Wilson's book.  Bock argued that the biological study of animal nature cannot explain human history, because "animals other than man do not have histories," and human history in its contingency and diversity shows a human freedom from nature that transcends human biology.  Human history can be studied by historians, but not by biologists.

I saw that Bock was taking the side of Thomas Hobbes against Aristotle, because Hobbes argued that Aristotle was wrong in declaring that human beings were political animals by nature, because while human politics was a product of uniquely human social learning and individual judgment, the politics of the political animals was determined by fixed instincts.  But I wondered whether Aristotle might be right in claiming in his biological works that the political life of nonhuman animals was shaped by their cultural learning and individual personalities, just like human politics.

In 1986, I read Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior; and I was surprised to see that she took the side of Aristotle against Hobbes, because her book was a political history of the Gombe chimpanzees showing that they had distinctive cultural traditions and individual personalities.  She showed that the genetic nature of the species set the "patterns of behavior"--predictable general propensities found in every chimpanzee group, like dominance hierarchies.  But she could not predict the precise history of the "chimpanzees of Gombe," because of the historical contingences of the cultural traditions and individual personalities that made the chimpanzee group at Gombe unique.  If she was right, Bock was wrong: these Gombe chimps did have a history, and this history of animal culture and individuality would have to be part of any biological science of politics.

Also in 1986, I attended an international conference on chimpanzee studies in Chicago sponsored by the Chicago Academy of Sciences.  Goodall was there.  And one of the preeminent topics was the growing interest in chimpanzee culture.  The high point for me was sharing an elevator with Goodall!

In 1998, in Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, I was able to defend Aristotle's account of political animals against the Hobbesian and Kantian claim that "culture" is the human transcendence of animal nature.  I could argue: "Like human beings and other primates, chimpanzees are cultural and historical animals."

In 2012, in my book chapter "Biopolitical Science," I gave a fuller account of the three-levelled analysis of biopolitical science--the unity of political universals, the diversity of political cultures, and the individuality of political judgments.  I worked through those three levels of biopolitical history as they are generally manifested in human politics and as they were particularly illustrated in Abraham Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

I argued that the individual personality of animals had to be included in any biopolitical science, because biologists now recognize that personality is part of animal psychology.  One of the most extensively studied models of human personality is the Five Factor Model that describes human personality differences across five domains--Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).  Each domain corresponds to an axis running from high to low.  This same OCEAN model can be applied to the study of nonhuman animals.  And it has been shown that chimpanzee personalities display all five domains, just like human beings.

More recently, in some of my posts, I have argued that a Darwinian social psychology needs to understand the interaction of genetic history (the evolutionary psychology of Tooby and Cosmides), cultural history (the cultural group selection of Richerson, Boyd, and Henrich), and biographical history (the evolved personality and life history of self-interested individuals who are agents of cultural change acting through coercion or persuasion, as presented by Singh, Wrangham, and Glowacki).

Genetic history enables and constrains, but does not determine, cultural history.  Genetic history and cultural history jointly enable and constrain, but do not determine, biographical history.

It all began with Goodall's chimps.

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

Monday, July 06, 2020

Should the Jefferson Memorial Be Torn Down?

In today's New York Times, there is an article by Lucian Truscott IV, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, who argues that the Jefferson Memorial in Washington should be taken down and replaced with a memorial for Harriet Tubman.  Although Jefferson deserves to be honored for declaring that "all men are created equal" and endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he should be condemned for not doing more to abolish slavery and for his shameful taking of Sally Hemings, his slave, as his concubine, who bore him six children.  The best monument to Jefferson, Truscott says, is Monticello, which includes an exhibit of Sally Hemings's bedroom, so that visitors can be reminded of Jefferson's hypocrisy and deceitfulness.

I have written about the evidence for Jefferson having made Hemings his concubine.  I have also written about Jefferson's biological science of equality, race, and slavery.

I conclude from this that Jefferson really did make the best scientific argument for human equality and the injustice of slavery, but that he lacked the good moral character to resist the degrading effects of owning slaves.

In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson recognized that slavery was ultimately a "cruel war against human nature itself."  And in the Notes on the State of Virginia, he warned that "the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other," and he saw that "the man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances" (Jefferson 1982, Query XVIII, p. 162).  Clearly, Jefferson was not such a prodigy.

Instead of taking down the Jefferson Memorial, wouldn't it provide great moral instruction to add a display at the Memorial explaining Jefferson's moral flaws as manifesting the degradation that Jefferson himself saw in the institution of slavery?  After all, Truscott agrees that Monticello is a properly instructive memorial to Jefferson precisely because of the Hemings display. 

If we are going to remove all of the public monuments for people who have any moral defects, then we will have no monuments at all.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

The 4th of July, Frederick Douglass, and the Neurobiology of Self-Ownership

On this 4th of July, it's good to be reminded of Frederick Douglass's speech in 1852 on "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro."  One of its most moving passages reads:
"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parades and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy--a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.  There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour."
Would Donald Trump scorn Douglass as one of those "far-left fascists" that he warned against last night at Mount Rushmore?

NPR has produced a video with some young descendants of Douglass reading a few passages from his speech.

This speech has a bitter tone of despair and protest like that of the Black Lives Matter movement today.  But there is also grounds for hope in this speech, because Douglass rebukes white America not for denying the principles of natural liberty and equality but for failing to live by those principles as stated in their Declaration of Independence.  That's why the American defenders of slavery had to reject the Declaration of Independence.

In this speech, Douglass also affirms the fundamental principle of his Lockean liberalism--natural self-ownership.  "Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it."

In a previous post, I have argued that this principle is rooted in the Darwinian biology of human nature--in the neurobiology of self-ownership.

In 2018, I wrote a long series of posts (beginning here) on the Darwinian science of the Declaration of Independence.

By some estimates, the Black Lives Matter protests have become the largest protest movement in American history, with as many as 15 million to 25 million American people participating.  I have written (here) about non-violent resistance movements as expressions of the Lockean "executive power of the law of nature."

The Evolution of the Natural Desire for Friendship in Social Networks

                       A Short TED Talk by Nicholas Christakis on Friendship in Social Networks

         A Longer Version of the Lecture That Puts Social Networks Within Sociological Theory

My list of 20 natural human desires includes friendship.  As part of our evolved human nature, we generally desire friendship.  We seek social relationships of mutual affection and respect based on shared interests and cooperative endeavors with our friends.  Although we can be friends with our sexual partners and family members, our desire for friendship is a natural desire for a social bond of reciprocal attachment that differs from our natural desires for sexual matting or familial bonding.  We can have intense and enduring friendships with only a few people, because such friendships require shared experiences over a long period of life.

If the good is the desirable, then the 20 natural desires constitute a natural standard for judging the good society, which would include promoting the conditions for friendship.

I have written about the Darwinian evolution of the natural desire for friendship in previous posts.  I have argued that Aristotle's account of friendship (philia) is rooted in his biological science of social bonding among humans and other animals (herehere, and here).  For Aristotle, the friendship among philosophers is the highest form of friendship, and indeed the perfection of the moral and intellectual virtues.  This life of philosophic friendship could be lived in Athens, I have argued (here), because Athens was a relatively liberal commercial society that allowed philosophers to form voluntary associations devoted to the philosophic life.  Similarly, Adam Smith and David Hume could live a life of philosophic friendship because, I have argued (here and here), the modern commercial society of Scotland was liberal enough to allow such a life.

Critics of liberalism, like Patrick Deneen, have claimed that liberalism's radical individualism dissolves all the social connections of family life and friendship, and thus makes us desperately lonely.  But I have argued (here) that the modern liberal social order actually gives us the freedom to form social networks that satisfy our natural desires for social bonding and friendship.  Moreover, I have suggested (here and here) that Friedrich Hayek showed how liberal open societies allow us to live in two worlds of evolved social instincts--the small world of face-to-face personal relationships in families and groups of friends and the large world of impersonal market exchange.

Now, the work of Nicholas Christakis and his colleagues in studying the evolution of social networks of friends among humans and other animals can explain the biological science of all this.  Much of this research is surveyed in Christakis's recent book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (Little, Brown Spark, 2019).  Christakis is a physician and sociologist, who teaches at Yale University, where he runs a "Human Nature Lab."  Unlike most sociologists, he does not scorn biological explanations of human social behavior.  On the contrary, he contends that there is a biological blueprint for human nature that shapes human social life.

At the core of all societies, Christakis claims, is what he calls a social suite of natural desires and capacities:

(1)  The capacity to have and recognize individual identity
(2)  Love for partners and offspring
(3)  Friendship
(4)  Social networks
(5)  Cooperation
(6)  Preference for one's own group (that is, "in-group bias")
(7)  Mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism)
(8)  Social learning and teaching

This social suite overlaps with my list of 20 natural desires and with much of Stephen Sanderson's list of 14 natural human preferences, except that Sanderson does not include friendship on his list.  I have written about Sanderson's list in a series of posts that begins here.  Like Christakis, Sanderson is one of those rare sociologists who embraces the biological science of human nature.

What is distinctive about Christakis's research is his adoption of "social network analysis."  (Wikipedia has a good article on this.)

In a social network diagram, each person in a population (a family, a club, an organization, a village, a school, or even a whole country) is indicated by a circle or a node in the diagram, and every connection between any two people (two friends, two relatives, two co-workers) is indicated by a line or an edge.  Connections among people are determined by asking people questions that are called a name generator.  Who are your closest friends?  Who do you prefer to spend time with?  Who can you trust to discuss your personal problems with?  To whom would you give some valuable gift?

Or researchers could map social connections by observing individuals and recording who is near whom for how long.  One could also use email or online social-network data to identify social bonds.

This is not limited to humans.  One can do a social network analysis of non-human animals to determine their patterns of friendship based on an association index of two animals, which is based on the amount of time they spend together.  Studying chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, one can see that they have social networks of friendship similar to that of human beings (Christakis 2019, 208-216).  One can also see that these primates are status seeking animals--like human beings--in that the more popular individuals are friends with one another, while the less popular individuals are also friends with one another; and the more popular ones are at the center of the network.

The popular individuals in positions of leadership in primate groups act as a kind of social police in that they mediate disputes to keep the peace in the group.  If high-ranking individuals are taken out of the group by human researchers, conflict and aggression rise, and the group collapses into chaos.  This shows how natural selection favors a desire for what Christakis calls "mild hierarchy," in which group leaders at the center of social networks lessen conflict and promote peaceful connections between high-ranking and low-ranking individuals.  This confirms Aristotle's observations of friendship and leadership among social animals.

Christakis and his colleagues have shown that there are similar networks of friendship in human groups, including bands of hunter-gatherers.  Studying the Hadza, a population of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, they found that the networks of friendship among these foragers resembled the networks of people in modern developed societies in five or more traits (Coren Apicella, Frank Marlowe, James Fowler, and Nicholas Christakis, "Social Networks and Cooperation in Hunter-Gatherers," Nature 481 [26 January 2012]: 497-501.)

First, the likelihood of a social tie decreased with increased geographic distance and increased with increases in genetic relatedness.

Second, the networks showed reciprocity, in that if one person named another person as a friend, that second person was likely to name the first person as a friend.

Third, the networks showed transitivity, in that two of a person's friends were likely in turn to be friends with one another.

Fourth, there was degree assortativity, in that popular people tended to befriend other popular people.

Fifth, there was homophily, in that similar people tended to befriend one another, so that friends are like to resemble one another in many of their physical and social traits.

Here is a YouTube video with Coren Apicella explaining this research.

If the Hadza are a good proxy for our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors, then this suggests that the desire for networks of friends is a natural instinct shaped by natural selection in our environment of evolutionary adaptation.  Of course, critics of this research will say that the Hadza have long had contacts with the modern world--including modern Western scientists!--and therefore they cannot give us any clear window into our prehistoric past.

And if hunter-gatherers really do show social networks of friendship similar to those in modern liberal societies, that suggests that critics of liberalism like Deneen are wrong in claiming that liberal social orders cannot satisfy the natural human need for social connection.  This might also suggest that Hayek was wrong in claiming that a modern open society must repress the ancient primitive instincts for social solidarity to which socialism appeals.  (I have written about this here.)