Sunday, September 02, 2007

Darwinian Political Science in the APSA

Having just returned from the convention of the American Political Science Association in Chicago, I am thinking about the future of Darwinian political science in the APSA. (My convention paper on "Darwinian Political Science" is available on the APSA website.)

The general theme for this convention was "Political Science and Beyond," which looks to the multidisciplinary study of politics. Many of the theme panels and many of the regular panels showed interest in various areas of biology--particularly, genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary game theory, and evolutionary psychology. One of the plenary lectures for the convention was Frans de Waal's presentation on the 25th anniversary of his book CHIMPANZEE POLITICS. De Waal's lecture was a dramatic manifestation of the growing interest in Darwinian science among American political scientists.

This confirms my long-held view that although "biopolitics" is never going to sweep through political science as some kind of intellectual revolution, biological thinking will gradually enter many fields of political science research as scholars discover that human biology provides intellectual tools for political scientists working in their fields of specialization.

In particular, I see biopolitical ideas finding points of entry in public policy, political psychology, international relations, political history, and political theory. It's easy to see the importance of biology for public policy because of the issues surrounding biomedical policy. Advances in neuroscience and biotechnology will necessarily provoke deep legal and political questions with policy implications. Students get excited by these issues. And many political scientists specializing in public policy will see these issues as deserving research.

In political psychology, many political scientists are discovering the deep insights into the shaping of political attitudes and behavior coming from genetics and neuroscience. Some of the most interesting panels at the convention were devoted to this research in which neuroscientists and behavioral genetics researchers are cooperating with political scientists to develop a biological political psychology, much of which assumes evolutionary psychology as explaining the ultimate causes of human genetic and neural nature. Evolutionary game theory is also showing a growing influence among political scientists who want to understand the evolution of cooperation and the conditions for social order.

In international relations, human evolutionary biology might provide insights into the motivations for suicide terrorism and political theology. This research could also fall under the rubric of political psychology.

The APSA organized section on "Politics and History" has grown dramatically over the last few years. In the "behavioral revolution" after World War II, the tendency for American political scientists was to ignore political history and thus to ignore the historical character of political life. Now, many political scientists recognize how ridiculous this is. Political events have significance as they emerge in temporal sequences of events that often go back far into history. To abstract these events from historical time for the sake of measuring the correlations of "variables" is a strange way to study politics. The criticism of studying political history is that it becomes mere story-telling with no grounding in general theory or explanations of causal mechanisms, and is therefore not really scientific. Many of the papers for the political history panels at the APSA convention were attempts to develop and defend various ways to theorize about political history and find causal mechanisms for explaining historical patterns. Although there is no reference to Darwinian evolutionary reasoning, I believe this new political history would benefit from Darwinian thinking. A big part of my "Darwinian Political Science" paper is defending the need for Darwinian deep political history that ranges over the whole history of political animals from the Pleistocene to the present. By contrast, much of this new political history research tends to be remarkably shallow history--concentrating on the last century or two of American and European history.

As a political theorist, I see Darwinian science as providing the general theory of human political nature as moving through three levels of political history--the genetic history of political universals, the social history of political cultures, and the individual history of political judgments. And yet I have no hope that many political theorists are going to adopt such Darwinian ideas in their research. In particular, the Straussian political theorists are closed to such thinking because it runs contrary to their generally accepted doctrines about the moral and intellectual dangers coming from modern science because of its presumed reductionist materialism.

It's a safe prediction that modern Darwinian science will continue to probe ever more deeply into the human biological nature of social and political life. Those political scientists who adopt this research in application to their studies of politics will move towards a richer and deeper political science. My theoretical framework for Darwinian political science is a step towards developing a broad intellectual structure for organizing this specialized research into a coherent interdisciplinary study.

I should say, however, that those who think political science should provide precise predictive power are going to be disappointed in Darwinian political science. One of the commentators on my APSA panel criticized my proposed theoretical framework because he could not see that it would allow political scientists to predict political behavior precisely. My response to this is to point out that because Darwinian political science would grasp political life in its full complexity and contingency, such a science would not have any precise predictive power. But, after all, no science of animal behavior--including any science of human political behavior--can provide precise predictions. Jane Goodall's political history of the chimps at Gombe and Frans de Waal's political history of the chimps at Arnhem are histories of unique communities at a unique point in history, and these histories will never repeat themselves exactly. Goodall and de Waal can make some general predictions--for example, predictions about the general pattern of dominance hierarchies. But they can't predict precisely when and how any individual chimp will emerge at some position in the hierarchy. Similarly, Goodall was surprised by the war between two chimp groups that she saw in the 1970s. Based on her observations from the 1960s, she did not anticipate this. Even now, primatologists would probably not be able to predict precisely the future conflicts of chimp groups. Just as political scientists failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union or 9/11 and the influence of terrorist networks on international relations today, so do primatologists fail to predict precisely the future of the chimps they study. The reason for this is that political animals--such as chimps and human beings--are all unique in their individual traits with unique life histories, and so the interaction of these unique individuals confronting the ever-changing circumstances of their lives produce political histories that cannot be precisely predicted.

As a true science of politics, a Darwinian political science would recognize the unpredictable complexity, contingency, and uncertainty of animal political behavior. It would permit us, however, to at least understand the general patterns of political behavior and thereby make some very general predictions about political life. But these predictions would not be precise. As Aristotle wisely said, we must demand only that level of precision that is appropriate to the subject matter that we study.


Anonymous said...

Dear Larry,
This is one of the most interesting posts you have had since it clearly shows where you think your research is headed. I have read your book with great interest and I would like your ideas of where this fits in an undergraduate theory class. I believe in natural law and your work is deeply important to me but I still do not see how to use it.
Mark Griffith

Larry Arnhart said...

You mention "natural law." Thomas Aquinas often refers to animal inclinations in his account of natural law--for example, in explaining parental care and mating. Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle's biology--particularly as filtered through Albert the Great's zoology. Much of this biological reasoning for natural law is confirmed by modern biology. So why couldn't this be introduced into an undergraduate class along with readings from Aquinas?