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about the universe and the place of human beings in that universe, Ellmers and Wise contend, Straussian scholars have withdrawn into a narrow academic profession devoted mostly to commentaries on old texts that repeat the standard interpretive themes of the Straussian tradition of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, americanmind.org/essays/skepticism-experience-and-science.
[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: https://leostrausscenter.uchicago.edu/course/natural-right-autumn-quarter-1962  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,” https://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2017/11/roger-scrutons-fallacious-argument-in.html
[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,” http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-biology-of-natural-right-aristotle.html
[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.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The Decline of Trump's Nationalist Identity Politics, The Renewal of Globalist Liberalism

In some previous posts (here, here, here, here, and here I have argued that there is no evolved natural desire for ethnic nationalism, and that a globalist liberalism has been amazingly successful in satisfying our natural desires for a flourishing human life.  Consequently, I have suggested that Trump's nationalist identity politics and the illiberal populist nationalism that has arisen in Europe are unlikely to prevail for long, because they frustrate those natural desires that have been fulfilled by the Liberal Enlightenment.

Even the most fervent of the recent Counter-Enlightenment critics of liberalism--like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher--propose alternative forms of community that actually depend upon the liberal principle of voluntary choice in forming communities.

There is now growing evidence to suggest that the appeal of illiberal nationalism is waning.  For example, the populist anti-immigrant Law and Justice Party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland has recently suffered a devastating defeat.  They were defeated in mayoral elections across the country including Warsaw and two-thirds of the other urban districts.  Significantly, the strategy of the Law and Justice Party was to stir up fear of immigrant refugees who would invade Poland.  Although this might have aroused its core voters, it also provoked a huge turnout for opposition candidates.  Voter turnout was the highest since 1989.  The voting results exposed the fact that Law and Justice can count on only about one-third of the voters.

Similarly, Donald Trump decided to turn the mid-term congressional elections into a referendum on his nationalist identity politics, and his strategy has been to stir up fears of Hispanic immigrants who will invade the country and begin murdering and raping American citizens.  Of course, this goes back to his speech in June of 2015, which launched his presidential candidacy by warning against Mexican rapists and murderers.

For the last week of the campaign, Trump personally endorsed an anti-immigrant television ad that was so blatant in its bigotry that even Fox News stopped running it.

This has probably backfired for Trump just as it did for Kaczynski.  Public opinion surveys indicate that while about a quarter of Americans, led by Republicans, believe that undocumented immigrants commit more crime than native-born Americans, about half of Republicans reject that idea; and the great majority of independents and Democrats reject it.  Three-quarter of Americans see immigration as generally good for the country.

Most Americans--particularly, young, educated, and urban Americans--see the social, economic, and cultural benefits of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society, and so ethnic nationalism has no appeal to them.  Some Americans--particularly, older, less educated, and rural Americans--find Trump's nationalist identity politics appealing.  As long as the first group turns out to vote in large numbers, Trump's Republican Party will lose.  If that happens, it will show the enduring appeal of globalist liberalism.

Trump has been saying the mid-term elections are all about him.  His opponents have been happy to agree.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Sexual Identity in Trump's Administrative State: "Immutable Biological Traits" or Nature/Culture/Judgment?

While many of the conservative intellectuals supporting Trump claim that he is demolishing the Administrative State, Trump is actually supporting a Presidential Administrative State in which presidential orders and administrative rules take the place of congressional lawmaking.  One illustration of that is the recent report in the New York Times that Trump's administrators will soon propose administrative laws for defining human sexual identity that will be adopted without congressional deliberation.  Amazingly, we will now have federal administrators telling us the true meaning of our identifying ourselves as male or female!

Title IX of the Education Acts of 1972 declares: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

The Obama administration issued administrative rules and regulations that expanded the meaning of "sex" in this law to include "gender identity," and they interpreted this to mean that to discriminate against transgender individuals by refusing to recognize their choice of a sexual identity opposed to the sex they were assigned at birth was a violation of their civil rights.  So, for example, transgender schoolchildren should be free to go to the girls bathroom, if they identify themselves as girls, even though they were boys at birth.

This move by the Obama administration was denounced by conservative Republicans.  For example, Roger Severino, the head of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, said this manifested a "radical gender ideology" in policies that were a "culmination of a series of unilateral, and frequently lawless, administration attempts to impose a new definition of what it means to be a man or woman on the entire nation."

But now Severino is the Director of the Office for Civil Rights at Trump's Department of Health and Human Services, and he supports the Trump proposal for reversing the Obama policies by issuing an administrative rule that "Sex means a person's status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth," and "the sex listed on a person's birth certificate, as originally issues, shall constitute definitive proof of a person's sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence."  This standard is said to have "a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable."  This is how the Presidential Administrative State works: the administrative rules of one presidential administration are reversed by another presidential administration, while circumventing the Congress's lawmaking powers.

The Trump administrators claim that the legal definition of sex under Title IX should be understood as "male or female based on immutable biological traits" that are "grounded in science."  Here they agree with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who a few weeks ago issued a ban on gender studies programs in the universities, declaring that "people are born either male or female," and so it is absurdly unscientific "to talk about socially constructed genders, rather than biological sexes."

A week ago, Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of biology and gender studies, wrote an op-ed essay in the New York Times arguing that the Trump administrators are wrong in assuming that there are only two biological sexes--male and female--because there are many layers of biological sex that can create a complex spectrum of five or more sexes.  Intersexual individuals are those whose sexual development has deviated in some way from that of a typical male or typical female.  This includes various disorders of sexual development that create anomalies in the sex chromosomes, the gonads, the reproductive tracts, and the genitalia.

This might seem to deny my argument that human beings have an evolved natural desire for "sexual identity," and that human beings generally desire to identify themselves as male or female.  But as I have said in response to Fausto-Sterling (in some previous posts here and here), even as I stress the dualism of sexual identity as male or female for most human beings, I recognize the exceptional variations from this strict bipolarity--hermaphrodites, who combine both sexes (ovaries and a penis, testes and a vagina), and those who cross from one to the other.

Aristotle recognized this in his biological works.  In one sense, he reasoned, hermaphrodites are "contrary to nature," because they deviate from what naturally happens "for the most part."  In another sense, however, hermaphrodites are "natural," because they arise from natural causes.

Deciding how to handle those cases that deviate from the central tendency of sexual bipolarity is a matter for the cultural tradition of a society and the prudential judgments of individuals.  But the fact that biological nature gives us such exceptional cases should not obscure the fact that the central tendency of nature is to clearly distinguish male and female.  The great majority of human beings are rarely confused about their sexual identity as male or female.  Children who are confused about this usually become secure in their natural sexual identity by the time of adolescence or young adulthood.

But how then should we handle those who suffer from "gender dysphoria"?  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines this a "a marked incongruence between one's experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, of at least 6 months duration," which is associated with "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, school, or other important areas of functioning."

We need to see that human sexual identify is shaped by at least three levels of causality--biological nature, social culture, and individual judgment.  Our evolved biological nature predisposes us to a male or female identity corresponding to different male or female roles in reproduction.  This natural predisposition will constrain but not determine our cultural norms of masculinity and femininity.  And our natural predispositions and cultural norms will jointly constrain but not determine our individual judgments about sexual identity in cases where it is ambiguous.  There is some freedom for social construction and individual choice in deciding sexual identity, but that freedom is bounded by the biological nature of sexual psychology.  There is a complex interaction of nature, culture, and judgment.

In some of Fausto-Sterling's writings, she seems to agree with this.  But sometimes, as in her New York Times essay, she suggests an arbitrary social constructionism.  In her essay, she repeatedly refers to John Money's "multilayered model of sexual development," which I can accept.  But she is silent about Money's responsibility for the scandalous case of David Reimer, which was described in the popular book by John Colapinto--As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as Girl (2000, 2006).  David was born as an identical twin in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1965.  A few months after his birth, a doctor botched his circumcision, and his penis was burned off.  His parents went for advice to John Money, a leading expert at Johns Hopkins University Hospital on pediatric gender identity.  He advised them to rear David as a girl (named Brenda)--pushing her to dress and act like a girl and using hormonal treatment and surgical operations to make her like a girl, but never telling her the truth about what they had done.

For Money, this was the perfect experiment to confirm his theory of "adult gender identity/role" (G-I/R).  Money was the first person--in a 1955 publication--to use the word "gender" to denote one's identity or role as a boy or man, girl or woman.  He took this word from "gender" as a term for masculine and feminine words in language.  He developed his concept of gender in his dissertation studying hermaphrodites.

He proposed that gender role and orientation as male or female was shaped by six factors: (1) assigned sex and sex of rearing, (2) external genital morphology, (3) internal accessory reproductive structures, (4) hormonal sex and secondary sexual characteristics, (5) gonadal sex, and (6) chromosomal sex.  Number 1 is a social or cultural factor, while numbers 2-6 are biological sexual variables.  As Fausto-Sterling indicates, this suggests a complex interaction of many biological and social factors.  But what she doesn't say is that he thought the social variable--the social assignment and rearing of a child as a male or female--was more powerful than the biological factors.  Gender role and orientation could be consistent with the sex of assignment and rearing, even when this contradicted chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, hormonal sex, the internal accessory reproductive structures, and the external genital morphology.

To prove this, Money, beginning in the early 1970s, begin pointing to what he called the "John/Joan" case--the identical twin boy who had been successfully reared as a girl.  Of course, the rearing as a girl was here combined with hormonal and surgical treatments to manipulate some of the biological factors to favor female identity.  But still this seemed to be a remarkable case showing that a genetic male (an XY chromosomal male) could be successfully transformed into a female.

This became the most cited case to support the claim that gender identity was mostly a social construction, and therefore the patriarchal social construction of male and female could be deconstructed by cultural policies favoring a radical feminist ideal of androgyny in which traditional male-female differences could be abolished.  It was said that animals have "sex," but only humans have "gender."  Because while animal sex is genetically and hormonally determined, human gender is culturally constructed by family members and others during childhood.

It was a great scandal, therefore, when it was reported, first in 1998, that the case of David Reimer was not the success that Money had claimed.

Brenda Reimer was never happy as a girl.  She wanted to be a boy.  She became depressed.  Her suffering increased when puberty make her even more like a boy.  Finally, at age 14, her parents told her the truth.  She then insisted that she needed to be changed back into a boy--through masculinizing hormonal treatment and surgery.  David then married a woman and adopted a child.  But he fell into deep states of depression as he struggled with what had been done to him.

Then, in 2004, four years after the publication of Colapinto's book, David ended his desperately unhappy life by killing himself with a sawed off shotgun.  Money never talked about his failure with David, and he never apologized for or explained his behavior, but when Money died in 2006, his reputation had been destroyed.

The case of David Reimer showed that the biological propensities of a genetic male set limits on any attempt to change a boy into a girl without disastrous consequences.  And this supported those scientists who took a conservative view of sexual psychology as rooted in biological nature, as against the radical ideological doctrine that sexual identity is so malleable that it can be remade to conform to any social policy.

At Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Money set up one of the major centers for sex-change surgery, so that people suffering from gender dysphoria could be healed by changing the sex of their bodies to conform to the gender identity of their minds: men could become women, and women could become men.  But then in 1975, Paul McHugh became psychiatrist-in-chief at the Hospital, and he thought there was no scientific evidence to support the claimed benefits of sex-change surgery.

McHugh posed two questions.  Had the men who had undergone sex-change surgery found improvement in their psychological health?  And had the male infants with ambiguous genitalia who had been surgically transformed into females become comfortable with their female identity?  He promoted research projects to study these questions, and he concluded that the answer to both questions was no.  He found, for example, that people who have had sex-change surgery suffer from a suicide rate far higher than their comparable peers. This led him to close down the Hopkins sex-change surgery program that Money had started.  (McHugh has written about this here and here.)

McHugh argues that men who want to live in a woman's body suffer from a mental illness, and therefore psychiatrists need to try to fix their minds not their genitalia.  The mental illness might take one of two forms.  They might be homosexual transsexuals who want to become a woman so that they can be sexually attractive to men.  Or they might be "autogynephilic" transsexuals whose heterosexuality is misdirected in that they are sexually aroused by the image of themselves as women.  In either case, a psychiatrist who helps them get a sex-change operation is cooperating with their mental disorder rather than alleviating it.

McHugh's conservative critique of transgenderism and his defense of natural sexual identity as male or female has been a primary influence on the current conservative position on sexual identity that is reflected in the proposed policies of the Trump Administration.  In their claims that their policies are "grounded in science," the Trump administrators might appeal to some of McHugh's published writing--particularly two long articles in The New Atlantis that survey the scientific research on these issues: Lawrence S. Mayer and Paul R. McHugh, "Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences," The New Atlantis (fall 2016) (online), and Paul W. Hruz, Lawrence S. Meyer, and Paul R. McHugh, "Growing Pains: Problems with Puberty Suppression in Treating Gender Dysphoria," The New Atlantis (spring 2017) (online).

It is not clear to me, however, that McHugh agrees with the Trump administrators that sex identity is "based on immutable biological traits."  Like Aristotle, McHugh thinks that while the scientific evidence shows that sex identity as male or female is a clear biological propensity "for the most part," there is also some variability that creates ambiguity--most obviously with hermaphrodites.  Speaking of sexual orientation, McHugh writes: "Given the possibility of changes in sexual desire and attraction, which research suggests is not uncommon, any attempt to infer a stable, innate, and fixed identity from a complex and often shifting mélange of inner fantasies, desires, and attractions--sexual, romantic, aesthetic, or otherwise--is fraught with difficulties" ("Sexuality and Gender," 57).

It is generally the case in biology that nothing is immutable.  Biological nature is all about propensities or inclinations rather than fixed outcomes.  And so it is for sexual orientation and sexual identity: biological nature will set some broad boundaries that limit and direct social culture and individual judgments, but within those boundaries we will have some freedom to exercise political prudence and individual prudence in deciding what is best for us.

Ultimately, the Aristotelian standard for our decisions should be human happiness or flourishing.  How best can we organize our governmental laws and social norms to enhance the probability that human beings in our society will satisfy their natural desires for sexual identity and sexual mating.

As I have said in some previous posts, there is no sharp separation between culturally-constructed gender and biological sex.  The cultural traditions of rearing boys as boys and girls as girls are certainly crucial factors in shaping our sexual identity.  But human culture is constrained by human nature, so that the cultural assignment of sexual identity fails when it contradicts an individual's biological propensities.  Parents and doctors must exercise prudential judgment in deciding the sexual identity of a newborn based upon their predictions of what will be most satisfying for the child as shaped by both natural propensities and cultural learning.

Darwinian liberalism offers the best way to handle the moral and legal issues of sexual identity.  We can recognize that by nature most human beings will be born as clearly male or female, and that sexual identity will be nurtured through parental care and cultural traditions.  But we can also recognize that a few human beings will be born sexually ambiguous, and in this case, we will have to rely on parental judgment and civil society to decide the best assignment of sexual identity.  The final standard will be what is most satisfying for children as they grow up and reach the age when they can decide for themselves whether their parents have made the right decision, or whether they want to change their sexual identity.  The continuing debate over the treatment of intersex people illustrates how the spontaneous order of civil society generates moral standards of the human good shaped by human nature, human culture, and human judgment.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Elite Body Armor in the Evolution of Archaic States

Ancient Greek, Roman, Samurai, and Aztec Body Armor

The Earliest Pictorial of Armored, Helmeted Warriors in Phalanx Formation on the Sumerian Stele of Vultures (2525 BC)

The Stele of Vultures is a stone slab erected by King Eannatum of Lagash to commemorate his defeat of the king of Umma in one of the many wars fought by states in ancient Mesopotamia--what is now southern Iraq.  It is called the Stele of Vultures because it depicted vultures tearing at the corpses of the defeated soldiers.  In the picture sketched above, it depicts armored and helmeted soldiers in a phalanx formation, armed with spears, trampling their opponents.  Since fighting in a phalanx requires special training and discipline, these are probably professional soldiers; and so this could be the first evidence in history of a standing professional army.  Prior to this, Neolithic armies were composed of men brought together to fight in some temporary crisis, and then they disbanded once the fighting was over.  We also know from other cuneiform tablets that some of the kings of the Mesopotamian city-states paid to maintain 600-700 full-time soldiers.  This state-supported military maintenance included expensive helmets, armor, weapons, and chariots.  The helmets were made of copper with a leather liner underneath.  The chariot was a Sumerian invention that became a major part of the military technology of Eurasian archaic states.  (See Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, A Short History of War: The Evolution of Warfare and Weapons [Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College, 1992], which is available online.)

Prior to this, for hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, human beings lived in stateless societies that were roughly egalitarian and democratic, in that most of the adult males had equal access to coercive power, because throwing stones, spear-throwers, and bows and arrows were easily available; and so the great majority of individuals could use their coercive threat to prevent exploitative rule by an elite few.  In the Neolithic Chiefdoms, there was some status ranking, and prominent men might lead a society in war, but leaders who sought tyrannical dominance could be checked by the coercive power of the multitude of individuals resisting exploitation.

Beginning around 5,200 BC, there is evidence in Mesopotamia for villages and small towns of sedentary foragers, farmers, and pastoralists who managed their collective affairs and trade with the outside world.  So even after the development of agriculture, with the farming of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals, human beings still lived in societies without bureaucratic states.

The first state in Mesopotamia--showing a state apparatus with walls, tax collectors, bureaucratic officials, and a priestly establishments--was probably Uruk.  A city wall was first built at Uruk around 3,200 BC.  By then Uruk was probably the largest city in the world, with a population between 25,000 and 50,000.

Following the model of Uruk, roughly twenty other city-states arose in the Mesopotamian alluvium.  Now it seemed that the liberty and equality of the state of nature had been lost as many people found themselves in organized state societies oppressed by slavery, forced labor, military conscription, and exploitative taxes.

According to Paul Bingham, the one primary cause for this move from egalitarian and democratic stateless societies to elite ruled archaic states is the new military technology of elite body armor.  Unlike stones, spear-throwers, and bows, specialized body armor is expensive and thus controlled by small groups of elite individuals.  Bingham's evidence for this is that in every archaic state--ancient Mesopotamian states, ancient Rome, ancient Inca state, ancient Mayans, ancient Aztecs, Imperial Japan, the Hawaiian states--coercive power is concentrated in elite armored warriors who are less than 10% of the male population.  Some evidence does not seem to conform to this pattern, however. Ancient Egypt was one of the earliest archaic states, and yet there is little evidence that Egyptian soldiers were heavily armored.  (See John Coleman Darnell and Colleen Manassa, Tutankhamun's Armies: Battle and Conquest During Ancient Egypt's Late Eighteenth Dynasty [Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2007], pp. 81-83.)

Archaic states have hierarchical societies in which a small elite at the top rule for their self-interest in exploiting the majority of the people through enslavement, forced labor, conscription, and oppressive taxation.  Nevertheless, when these archaic states became too tyrannical, the state subjects could flee or rebel and thus bring the disintegration of the state, which confirms Locke's account of how people through resistance and rebellion against governmental tyranny reclaim their natural freedom.

I have written about the evidence for this in ancient Mesopotamia here and here.  This explains why Pierre Goodrich chose the Sumerian word amagi--the first word in the oldest written language for "liberty"--as the logo for the Liberty Fund.  The greatest threat to human liberty--the emergence of the archaic state in Mesopotamia--elicits the natural human resistance to tyranny that manifests the natural human longing for liberty that was shaped in the evolutionary state of nature.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Stephen Hawking's Unscientific Atheism

When the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking died last March at the age of 76, he was the most famous scientist in the world.  He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, which was the position once held by Isaac Newton.  The picture of Hawking in his wheelchair--a brilliant mind in a body almost completely paralyzed by motor neuron disease--had become an iconic image of the scientist, comparable to Albert Einstein's face.  Hawking's ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey between Newton and Charles Darwin.

In 1988, Hawking's first book--A Brief History of Time--became an international best-seller.  When he died, he was working on his last book, which has just been published--Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Bantam Books, 2018).  In such books, written for a popular audience, we can see Hawking trying to shape popular culture to conform to his understanding of modern science.

Crucial to that project is his answer to the first Big Question in his new book--Is there a God?  His answer is No.

Hawking's atheism was troubling for his first wife--Jane--because she was a devout Christian.  (Charles and Emma Darwin faced a similar struggle, which I have written about here and here.) This and other problems in their marriage are thoughtfully depicted in Jane's published memoir of their life and in the movie based on her writing--The Theory of Everything.  The actor playing the part of Stephen--Eddie Redmayne--received the Academy Award for Best Actor, and he writes the Foreword to Brief Answers.  The movie is well worth watching.  I watched it for the first time a few months ago while flying across the Pacific from Australia to the U.S.  Here's the trailer:

Although Hawking insists that his atheism is dictated by science, his atheism is actually unscientific, because his reasoning is fallacious and unsupported by empirical evidence.  He fails to see that modern science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, because there is no scientific way to resolve the Reason-Revelation debate.  And so he also fails to see that a modern liberal regime shaped by the Scientific Enlightenment must foster the intellectual freedom of thought about the Reason-Revelation debate, while also fostering the practical freedom of association in forming religious communities.

Consider this first paragraph in his first chapter of Brief Answers:
"Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.  Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are3 we here, where did we come from?  Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything.  The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms, or eclipses.  Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science" (25).
The claim that people "cling to religion" only because they "do not trust or understand science" is false.  Lots of prominent scientists--from Newton to Francis Collins--have been religious believers.  Newton thought that his Principia Mathematica supported the design argument for the existence of God.  In his "General Scholium" to the Principia, he declared: "This most beautiful system of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. . . . This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler."  Biologists like Francis Collins and astrophysicists like Owen Gingerich have affirmed theistic evolution in arguing that God can act through the natural causality of Darwinian evolution.  Darwin himself recognized this position (taken by people like Asa Gray) as intellectually defensible.  Darwin was an agnostic, but he was not an atheist, because he could not see how science could completely refute theism.  I have written about theistic evolution (here  and here) and Darwin's agnosticism (here).  Hawking is silent about all of this, and so he does not explain what is wrong with scientific theism.

Some scientific theists have argued that the scientific idea of the Big Bang--the idea that the whole universe arose from nothing about 14 billion years ago--points to God, because only God could have created everything out of nothing.  On the contrary, Hawking argues, science can explain how the universe arose from nothing without any need for God as the Creator.  Here's Hawking's reasoning in Brief Answers:
". . . What could cause the spontaneous appearance of a universe?  At first, it seems a baffling problem--after all, in our daily lives things don't just materialize out f the blue.  You can't just click your fingers and summon up a cup of coffee when you feel like one.  You have to make it out of other stuff like coffee beans, water and perhaps some milk and sugar.  But travel down into this coffee cup--through the milk particles, down to the atomic level and right down to the sub-atomic level, and you enter a world where conjuring something out of nothing is possible.  At least, for a short while.  That's because, at this scale, particle such as protons behave according to the laws of nature we call quantum mechanics.  And they really can appear at random, stick around for a while and then vanish again, to reappear somewhere else."
"Since we know the universe itself was once very small--perhaps smaller than a proton--this means something quite remarkable.  It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature.  From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded--a place to store all the negative needed to balance the books.  But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur?  In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang?  I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator."
"Our everyday experience makes us think that everything that happens must be caused by something that occurred earlier in time, so it's natural for us to think that something--maybe God--must have caused the universe to come into existence.  But when we're talking about the universe as a whole, that isn't necessarily so.  Let me explain.  Imagine a river flowing down a mountainside.  What caused the river?  Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains.  But then, what caused the rain?  A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapor up into the sky and made clouds.  Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine?  Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process.  So far so good.  Where does the hydrogen come from?  Answer: the Big Bang.  But here's the crucial bit.  The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang.  Nothing" (33-35).
 Notice the incoherence in Hawking's reasoning here.  He claims to explain the origin of the universe from nothing, but his explanation actually assumes that the universe originated from something!  On the one hand, he says that "nothing caused the Big Band."  But on the other hand, he must appeal to "the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur."  He must assume at the origin of the universe the reality of the laws of quantum mechanics and of quantum vacuum states.  That's not nothing! That's something!

Hawking falsely assumes the possibility of absolute nothingness.  Since human beings have no experience of absolute nothingness, whereas all of our experience confirms the being of things, there is no empirical evidence for absolute nothingness.  Even the very idea of nothingness as a product of the theological imagination pondering the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is dubious, because in the absence of any empirical evidence, I doubt that people even understand what they are saying when they ask why the world arose out of nothing.

Hawking might have responded to this objection by asserting that the scientific theory of the Big Bang shows that we have scientific evidence of absolute nothingness, because the theory tells us that before the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, the universe did not exist.

But there are lots of problems with this interpretation of the Big Bang theory.  First, there is disagreement among cosmologists as to whether the Big Bang was a "singularity"--a sudden appearance of space/time and physical laws from nothingness.  Some believe the Big Bang was a lawful emergence of the present universe from a previous one, although then we confront the problem that the theory of multiple universes is not open to empirical observation and testing.

The second problem is that if we see the Big Bang as a singularity, then there was no time prior to the Big Bang, and therefore there were no earlier moments of time in which nothing existed.

The third problem is that if we use the principles of quantum mechanics to infer that the universe arose from nothing as a quantum fluctuation, then we assume (as Hawking does) the existence of quantum mechanics, which is not absolute nothingness.

Finally, any interpretation of the Big Bang as something coming from nothing can only be a work of wildly speculative imagination without any basis for empirical testing.  Notice that in offering his theory of how the universe arose from nothing without God, Hawking does not propose any way to empirically test his theory, because in principle it is not testable.  If science requires testing theories against empirical data, then Hawking's theory is not science.

The failure of Hawking and others to offer a scientific explanation of how the universe arose from nothing without any need for God's creative activity has been interpreted by some Christian apologists (like William Lane Craig) as indicating that the Big Bang actually proves scientifically the existence of God.  But that is not true, because the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not a scientific idea at all since it is not open to empirical testing.

This was understood by the first cosmologist to propose a Big Bang theory of the universe--the Jesuit priest Georges Lemaitre.  When Pope Pius XIII in 1951 pointed to Lemaitre's Big Bang theory as scientific evidence for divine creation of the universe from nothing, Lemaitre criticized the Pope for failing to see how his scientific theory had nothing to do with the Christian doctrine of creation.  Lemaitre explained that the theory of the Big Bang is not a theory of how the universe could arise "from nothing," but rather it is a theory of how the universe could have arisen from what Lemaitre called a "primeval atom," or from a hyper-dense sphere of cold matter, disintegrating through radioactivity into an expanding universe, or from what some people called "the cosmic egg."

Lemaitre thus separated the scientific theory of the universe's origin from something and the religious doctrine of the universe's creation from nothing.  Here Lemaitre was in agreement with Thomas Aquinas, who declared that "It is by faith alone do we hold and not be any demonstration that can be proved, that the world did not always exist. . . . that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science" (Summa Theologica, I, q. 46, a. 2).

I have elaborated some of these points in previous posts herehere, and here.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How the Bow and Arrow Caused the Neolithic and Agricultural Revolutions

        A Reconstruction of Cahokia Mounds
Cahokia Mounds Today in Illinois near St. Louis

The Chaco Canyon Great Houses of the Anasazi People in New Mexico

A Prehistoric Cave Picture of Hunters with Bow and Arrow

If the scale of human non-kin social cooperation depends on the range and effectiveness of the weapons for law enforcement, then we can predict that the invention of the bow and arrow expanded social cooperation beyond what was possible with the atlatl.  This can be seen in the archaeological record of prehistoric North America, where the introduction of the bow (AD 300-700) was followed by a great increase in the size and complexity of Native American societies, which is called the North American Neolithic transition.  The introduction of the bow also preceded the much earlier Neolithic transition to sedentary villages in Eurasia around 11,000 BCE in the Natufian culture in the Levant of the southeastern Mediterranean basin (Bingham and Souza 2009; Bar-Yosef 1998).

Bows are more accurate than atlatls, and it is easier to learn to shoot arrows consistently than to throw atlatls consistently (Bettinger 2013; Cattelain 1997; Whittaker 2013).  You can see this by watching some of the videos of people demonstrating the throwing of atlatls, and they show that it's much harder to control the trajectory of an atlatl than to control the flight of an arrow shot from a bow. It is also easier to repeatedly shoot a volley of arrows at a target than to repeatedly throw atlatls.

When our prehistoric ancestors shifted from using atlatls to using bows, they probably doubled or even tripled their success in using their weapons to hunt animals or kill other humans.  Locke's "executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right to punish those who violate the customary norms of social cooperation--became more effective with the bow as a weapon of enforcement.  According to the "social coercion theory" of Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza (2009, 2013), we should see archaeological evidence for increasing scale and complexity of social cooperation after the introduction of the bow, because this weapon improves the credible treat of violent coercion to punish cheaters, free-riders, or social parasites, thus suppressing conflicts of interest to sustain cooperation.

The bow appears for the first time in Southwest Eurasia about 14 thousand years ago (kya), in Europe and in far northern North America about 12 kya.  In North America, the bow spread slowly from north to south.  It did not appear in the southern regions of North America (what is now the United States) until about 200 to 700 AD (Blitz 1988; Maschner and Mason 2013).  This global pattern in the spread of the bow constitutes a natural laboratory experiment.  In principle, we should be able to test the prediction of social coercion theory that the introduction of the bow will be followed by increased social complexity and scale as people settle into villages, engage in complex market exchange, begin domesticating plants and animals, and then later practice extensive field agriculture.

An alternative to the social coercion theory is the warfare theory, which says that the introduction of the bow led to increased warfare between groups, and then there was increased social complexity and economic intensification as a response to the demands of increased warfare.  According to social coercion theory, increased warfare is an effect rather than a cause of the increased social and economic complexity that is caused by the increased effectiveness of the bow as weaponry for enforcing intense social cooperation within a group.  We should be able to see whether the introduction of the bow leads first to increased social and economic complexity followed by increased warfare, which is the prediction of social coercion theory.

The problem, however, is that the archaeological record for dating the appearance of the bow and arrow is often unclear.  Wooden bows and arrows are likely to decay over thousands of years.  Often the stone points are the only surviving evidence.  But then it can be hard to distinguish arrowheads from atlatl dart tips.

The solution to this problem is to measure the length, width, thickness, and weight of the stone points, and then develop standards for distinguishing atlatl dart tips from arrowheads based on these quantitative measurements.  Arrowheads tend to be smaller, thinner, and lighter than atlatl dart points. 

Projectile Points from Prehistoric Mississippi and Alabama: a. Late Arrow Points (Hamilton/Madison Type); b. Early Arrow Points (Baker's Creek Type); c. Dart Points (Copena Type) (Blitz and Porth 2013)

The best way to see the evolution of these artifacts over thousands of years of prehistoric North America is to look at Noel Justice's three books on stone age spear and arrow points in the United States, which describe, date, and categorize the prehistoric stone points, along with beautiful photographs (Justice 1988, 2002a, 2002b).

In 2012, there was a widely publicized report in Nature about the discovery of stone tools dating to 71,000 years ago at the Pinnacle Point prehistoric site in South Africa.  Some of these microliths appeared to be projectile points.  One commentator said that this showed that the bow and arrow was used by people in Africa as early as 71,000 years ago (McBrearty 2012).  But the authors of the report said that these stone points could have been used to tip atlatl darts rather than arrows (Brown et al. 2012, p. 592).  So, as far as I know, there is no clear evidence for arrowheads older than about 14,000 years ago.  (I would be happy to hear from anyone who knows about evidence for an older date.)

I have written (here) about the earliest Neolithic Transitions in ancient Mesopotamia, in which sedentary hamlets become larger villages that domesticated plants and animals for farming, which was followed by fixed field agriculture and then archaic states centered in the first cities (such as Uruk).  I said nothing there about the possible importance of the bow in those transitions.

The archaeological records of the Neolithic revolutions in Eurasia are difficult to study, because they are eight to eleven thousand years old, and over time the records decay or even totally disappear.  By contrast, the archaeological records of the Native Americans of North America provide an almost perfect natural laboratory.  The bow was introduced into this region relatively recently--between 100 and 700 AD in the continental United States.  The archaeological studies of this region are well-developed.  And it is such a large and ecologically diverse region that one can study adaptations for variable environmental settings.  

Bingham and Souza argue that this prehistoric North American record supports their social coercion theory in showing how the introduction of the bow caused an increase in social complexity that sparked the Neolithic revolutions in North America (Bingham and Souza 2009, 360-399; Bingham, Souza, and Blitz 2013; Bingham and Souza 2013).

Consider the consequences of the introduction of the bow into the ancient American Southwest (Bingham and Souza 2009, 376-78; Bingham and Souza 2013; Reed and Geib 2013; VanPool and O'Brien 2013). Four thousands of years, Native Americans in the Southwest lived as nomadic foragers hunting with atlatls and horticulturists who cultivated maize.  Then, the earliest evidence for the use of bows appeared from 100 AD to 400 AD.  From 400 AD to 525 AD, they began to show the Anasazi culture: they lived a more sedentary life in villages, they expanded their use of pottery, and they brought large areas of land under agricultural cultivation.  By 600 AD, they were accumulating enough stored grain to feed themselves for two to four years, and they thus generated a surplus to support extensive trade. By 900 AD, they were living in large blocks of apartment-like structures, showing a new scale of social complexity and economic intensification.  The famous Pueblo Bonito massive buildings in Chaco Canyon (in Northwest New Mexico) were built.  Eventually, thousands of people were living here, with hundreds of acres of land for the cultivation of maize watered by a complex system of irrigation.  This is what happens, Bingham and Souza argue, when a new weapon like the bow extends the range of law enforcement and thus expands social cooperation.

A similar historical pattern appeared in the mid-continental United States where the introduction of the bow around 600 AD preceded the emergence of the Mississippian cultures beginning around 800 AD (Bingham and Souza 2009, 378-79; 2013; Blitz and Porth 2013)  The Mississippian culture was a mound-building civilization that began in the Mississippi River Valley and then spread across the Midwest and the Upland South.  It prevailed across a series of urban settlements and villages linked together by trading networks extending as far west as the Rockies.  The largest city was Cahokia, located east of what is now East St. Louis, Illinois.  Cahokia was probably the largest urban settlement in North America north of Mexico.  The second largest urban settlement was in Moundsville, near what is today Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The most prominent archaeological record of the Mississippian culture is in the huge earthern pyramid mounds that seem to have been sites for temples and religious ceremonies as well as houses and burial buildings.  The Mississippians practiced large-scale and intensive maize agriculture that sustained their large populations and complex economies of exchange and specialization.

The one driving cause for this increase in social and economic complexity in the Mississippian culture, Bingham argues, was the development of the bow as a weapon that could enforce expanded social cooperation.  Even if we see some evidence that the bow was one cause for this, however, we might object that surely there were other causes as well, and so Bingham's theory suffers from being too simplistic.

For example, the prominence of the Mississippian mounds as structures built for religious rituals points to the importance of religious belief as a primary factor in supporting the evolution of social cooperation among tens of thousands of people who were not kin and who were largely anonymous to one another.  Shared religious beliefs and rituals seemed to have been crucial for binding these people together in moral communities.  Some anthropologists have claimed that the Neolithic transition to agricultural civilization required changes in religious beliefs that would hold people together in large religious communities (Cauvin and Watkins 2000).

Some evolutionary anthropologists have argued that the cultural evolution of prosocial religions was one of the major causes for the cultural evolution of large agrarian states.  The beliefs and practices of these religions promoted social cooperation in large communities based on the shared belief in a morality enforced by an all-powerful and moralistic God.  Like Darwin, they see this cultural evolution as driven by group selection in war:  groups with prosocial religions were stronger than groups without such religions.  I have written about this in a previous post (here).

But to say that religious belief was a primary cause for the Neolithic transitions, Bingham complains, is to confuse effect for cause or proximate for ultimate causation.  From the point of view of Darwinian evolutionary science, beliefs are merely the proximate tools for carrying out evolved behavioral strategies for individual self-interest.  The social cooperation of non-kin requires social coercion through the credible threat of violence against cheaters and free-riders.  A new weapon like the bow and arrow allows this social coercion to expand to the scale of large Neolithic communities.  Religious belief can then become a mere means in human proximate psychology for motivating the cooperative behavior demanded by social coercion.

Through out most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in small foraging bands where everyone knew everyone else.  They shared information about the world, including their social world, which held them together as a mutually informed social group. They monitored one another's conduct.  They were vigilant in punishing misbehavior and thus enforcing a shared belief system that included the social contract--the customary norms for conduct.

But then as social groups grew in size during the Neolithic transition, people were connected to too many people to know them all well; and so they could not monitor what everyone was doing and thinking.  They could not sustain their social identity as a mutually informed social group through the face-to-face interactions of people personally known to one another.

The solution to this problem was to bring together large collections of people to engage in ritual celebrations--perhaps at a temple complex on top of a sacred mound--where people would be required to profess their loyalty to a communal belief system.  Anyone suggesting any doubt in this belief system would be ostracized.  Affirming this belief system simultaneously bound the members of the community into a social unit and cut them off from members of any competing communities.

Such a belief system, Bingham observes, would include three kinds of beliefs.  There would be pragmatic beliefs about the material world pertinent to adaptive activities--such as foraging, hunting, farming, and so on.  There would be social contract beliefs about the customary norms of social conduct for the community--such as not stealing property or not murdering other members of the community.  And there would be identifier beliefs that distinguish the members of one community from those of other communities.

The first two kinds of belief--pragmatic and social contract beliefs--can be empirically verifiable by reference to our experience of the material and social worlds.  But the identifier beliefs may be so obscure and esoteric that they have no verifiable reference to the ordinary world of human experience.  This includes beliefs about the gods and spirits--about a world of invisible powers beyond the visible world.  These beliefs are purely self-referential, with no reference to the real world, because their purpose is not to help us navigate our way in the material and social world but to identify us as set apart from and against them.  (Today, we see such xenophobic identifier beliefs expressed in fascist and populist political movements.)

Bingham identifies his own identifier beliefs as those of the scientific atheists, who believe that the belief system predominant in a modern liberal democratic society should be secular scientific materialism, which allows people to doubt or deny religious beliefs without fear of punishment, and which requires that the political order of a modern society should promote and respect the scientific pursuit of truth based on reason rather than revelation.

We might wonder, however, whether a predominantly secular civilization is possible?  Or does the social prevalence of scientific atheism subvert the moral order of human life by denying its grounding in religious belief?  Is a society of atheists impossible?  Is atheism contrary to our evolved human nature?

We can think about such questions by considering the implications of the scientific atheism proclaimed by celebrated scientists like Stephen Hawking.  My next post will be on Hawking's posthumously published book--Brief Answers to the Big Questions. 


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