Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mansfield's Jefferson Lecture

Harvey Mansfield's Jefferson Lecture--"How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science"--can be found here.

Mansfield advances five main ideas. 1. Politics is about thumos or "spiritedness," which makes politics a contest for importance. 2. The biology of Plato and Aristotle could explain thumos. 3. Modern science--and particularly modern evolutionary biology--ignores thumos. 4. Modern political science ignores thumos. 5. Political scientists need to look to literature and history to help them understand thumos.

I disagree with the third idea. But I agree with the others. I agree that manly ambition and striving for importance drive politics as a contest for dominance. Plato and Aristotle saw this as rooted in human biology, especially male biology. Literature and history explore such spirited rivalry in the stories of assertive individuals in politics and war. Modern political science, however, has little to say about this, because political scientists pursue a science of abstract generalizations and mathematical formulas where personal rivalry has no place.

But unlike Mansfield, I think modern Darwinian biology confirms the biology of Plato and Aristotle in showing how politics as a spirited contest for dominance manifests human natural desires. In his book Manliness, Mansfield claims that Darwin does not recognize manly assertiveness and how such assertiveness supports male dominance in politics. And yet I have shown in some previous posts that this shows Mansfield's ignorance of Darwin, who speaks in The Descent of Man of how men display "ambition" and "rivalry" in the pursuit of "victory" and "eminence." For one of those posts, go here.

Mansfield says that "science is indifferent to proper names, and confines itself to common nouns." But in fact scientists like Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal studying the political behavior of animals do regularly use proper names to distinguish individuals as they compete for status in the hierarchy of their groups.

While refering to "the biology of Plato and Aristotle," Mansfield never comments specifically on that ancient biology. He does not, for example, notice that Aristotle identified various species of animals as "political," and explained human beings as political animals with similarities to these other political animals. He also saw human politics as unique insofar as human politics employs reason or speech. Darwin continued in this tradition of comparative animal behavior.

Mansfield writes: "Modern biology, particularly the theory of evolution, is based on the overriding concern for survival in all life. This is surely wrong in regard to human life. If you cannot look around you and must insist on indulging a taste for the primitive, you have only to visit the ruins of an ancient people and ponder how much of its GNP was devoted to religion, to its sense of the meaning of human life rather than mere survival."

This is incorrect. Of course, human survival and reproduction is required for both genetic and cultural evolution. But this does not mean that survival is the only human motivation. As I have argued, a Darwinian view of human nature would indicate that there are at least 20 natural desires that drive human conduct. These desires can be seen in Darwin's account of human life in The Descent of Man. But as far as I can tell, Mansfield has not read Darwin. Darwin and other evolutionary biologists have given a lot of attention to the importance of religion, for example. One possible explanation for Mansfield's claim that evolutionary biology is concerned only with survival as the only human motivation is that he has adopted a caricatured version of Darwinian biology as explaining everything through "selfish genes."

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