Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Utopianism of David Wilson and Herbert Spencer

My fundamental argument for Darwinian conservatism is that Darwinian science generally supports conservatives in their realist view of human imperfectibility, in contrast to the utopian view of human perfectibility that tends to run through leftist thought. Nevertheless, there is a tradition of utopianism coming from Herbert Spencer that is often associated with Darwinian evolution. One can see some of that Spencerian utopianism in the writing of David Sloan Wilson. (A previous post on Spencer can be found here. A previous post on Wilson can be found here.)

Spencer foresaw an evolutionary trend towards completely harmonious cooperation in a "social organism" that would embrace all of humanity. This would bring about the transformation of human nature into a state of perfection in a stateless anarchy with perpetual peace.

There are some intimations of a similar utopian progressivism in Wilson's Evolution for Everyone. Although I generally agree with Wilson, I am not persuaded by the utopian elements in his writing. Like Spencer, Wilson defends a theory of group selection based on the idea of the "social organism"--the idea that a social group can become as harmoniously cooperative as an organic body. This can easily be pushed towards the sort of perfectionist utopianism that one sees in Spencer.

For example, Wilson's chapter on "The Egalitarian Ape" in Evolution for Everyone suggests that human groups can become so egalitarian that no individual has more authority than another. To support this conclusion, he looks to the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer groups, he appeals to Chris Boehm's conception of how a "reverse dominance hierarchy" can enforce equality, and he contrasts human egalitarianism with "despotic chimp society."

There are problems with this reasoning. Hunter-gatherers are not completely without leaders or conflicts over dominance. If they appear to be egalitarian, it's only because their resistance to exploitative dominance inclines them to punish individuals who become too pushy in their dominance. Wilson quotes from Richard Lee's studies of the !Kung San in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. But he does not quote Lee's comments on "patterns of leadership" among the !Kung (see Lee, THE !KUNG SAN [1979], 343-50, 457-61). Wilson concedes this point later in his book when he writes: "The balance of power is never equal in real villages. Some members are always better than others in their physical prowess, intelligence, or experience. . . . Powerful members of villages who demonstrate their good intentions are rewarded with leadership, whole those who throw their weight around are shunned and excluded" (292).

The same is true for chimps. Although Wilson claims that Frans de Waal has shown the "despotism" of chimp society, de Waal actually contrasts the "egalitarian dominance" style of chimps and the "despotic dominance" style of rhesus monkeys. Dominant male chimps must serve the good of their group, and they are punished by their group when they don't. This supports de Waal's argument that there is an evolutionary logic behind limited government based on checks and balances: even as we allow ambitious individuals to pursue their dominance drive, we can check and channel that dominance to satisfy the desire of the many to be free from exploitative dominance.

Like Spencer, Wilson foresees that international relations will evolve towards peaceful cooperation. He sees the emergence of a "global village" based on a "shared value system." But he is vague as to what this "shared value system" would be, how it would be enforced, and whether it could really secure perpetual peace.

In contrast to Spencer and Wilson, I think that Darwinian science supports a realist conception of human nature that makes conflicts of interests unavoidable. This supports a tragic view of the human condition in which some conflicts cannot be resolved except by force. That's why war is inevitable. Human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. I agree with Wilson about the importance of evolution by group selection. But I would stress that group-selected cooperation will always be weakened by competition both within and between groups, so that the best we can achieve is to maintain a tense balance of competition and cooperation.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Darwinian Natural Law: A Reply to Gavin Colvert

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have suggested that a Darwinian naturalism can support a conception of "Darwinian natural right" that is similar to traditional natural law reasoning. I have also elaborated this point in my paper "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right," published as an article in Social Philosophy & Policy (winter 2001)and in Natural Law and Modern Moral Philosophy (edited by Ellen Frankel Paul et al. for Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Recently, Gavin Colvert, a philosopher at Assumption College, has published a response to my reasoning--"Back to Nature: Aquinas and Ethical Naturalism"--which can be found here.

Although Colvert praises my efforts at providing a Darwinian grounding for natural moral law, he argues that there are serious defects in my position. Actually, I think that he and I are even closer than he realizes. He writes: "Aquinas holds that the normative force of the natural inclinations to various goods must be integrated through the consideration of reason. Humean sentimentalism does not provide for this possibility" (49). He concludes: "Natural inclinations are normative within a practical grasp of our nature and possibilities for human fulfillment. In other words, a genuine theory of practical reason is needed. Sentimentalism is not enough" (59). I agree! But Colvert doesn't see this agreement because he does not notice my emphasis on prudence as essential for moral deliberation. See, for example, Darwinian Natural Right (17-21, 44-49, 80-81, 152-60, 166-70,188-89, 224-30) and Darwinian Conservatism (10, 15, 23-25, 32-33, 41-45, 110-11, 133, 142).

The good is the desirable, I argue, but what is desirable is not the same as what we happen to desire at any moment. What is desirable for us as human beings conforms to our happiness or flourishing as a deliberate conception of the harmonious satisfaction of our desires over a whole life. As Darwin indicates, only human beings can be moral beings in this sense, because only they have the cognitive capacities for reason and language that allow them to formulate a plan of life, so that they can judge present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations. Pure reason by itself cannot move us to action. But practical reason can move us when it is linked to natural desire or inclination. I agree, therefore, with Colvert's claim that "reason must integrate the objects of natural desire into a coherent understanding of the human good" (37).

Colvert identifies me as a "Humean sentimentalist." This ignores the emphasis I give to practical reasoning. It also ignores Hume's point that morality requires a conjunction of reason and sentiment. I and Hume would agree with Darwin's conclusion: "Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit."

Colvert relies on Carson Holloway's critique of my position. I have responded to Holloway on various occasions. One of my posts on Holloway can be found here.

Like Holloway, Colvert appeals to Tocqueville in stressing the importance of religious belief for morality. I agree with Tocqueville's claim that "considering religions from a purely human point of view, one can say that all religions derive an element of strength which will never fail from man himself, because it is attached to one of the constituent principles of human nature" (quoted by Colvert at p. 53). After all, I stress the natural desire for religious understanding and the ways in which religion reinforces morality. But I also argue that the natural moral sense can stand on its own natural ground in human nature even without religious belief.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


I have had a series of debates with John West, the Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute will sponsor our next debate on November 15 at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle.

I have responded to West's book Darwin's Conservatives in various posts, some of which can be found here, here, and here.

West's new book--Darwin Day in America--is being published by ISI Books. The book will be released next month. But I have already read the book in page proofs. It is a very good book in surveying the bad effects of a crude scientific materialism in American public policy. That's why I have written a blurb for ISI Books praising it.

My one point of disagreement with West, however, is that I cannot understand why he wants to blame Darwinian science for all of the bad thinking and bad policies attributed to scientific materialism. For example, he criticizes Louis Sullivan's modern architecture for its "reductionist view of buildings as the sum of their functions and building materials." What does this have to do with Darwin? Well, Sullivan said that he was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution, and therefore, West concludes, Darwin must have been responsible for modern architecture. But then West also notes that Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright also manifested a mystical romanticism that didn't seem very Darwinian. Again, I don't see that there is any kind of inevitable connection to Darwinian science.

Similarly, West criticizes John Watson for his behavioral psychology. But Watson's denial of human nature and affirmation that human beings come into the world as a "blank slate" with no innate propensities and open to environmental conditioning rejects any Darwinian science of human nature! And yet somehow, according to West, this behaviorist rejection of human biological nature is a consequence of Darwinism. I can't see the logic in this at all.

West assumes that Darwinian science requires a strong reductionism in which "the parts are more important than the whole--to the degree that sometimes the whole seems to be a lot less than the sum of the parts." But in Darwinian Conservatism, I argue that Darwinian biology requires the idea of emergence, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That's why I argue against E. O. Wilson's "consilience" as strong reductionism and in favor of "consilience" as emergent complexity.

West presents his argument in almost totally negative terms. He indicates the weaknesses in a strongly reductionist science--particularly, in its moral and political implications. But he never elaborates his positive alternative. (This reliance on negative argumentation is common for the proponents of intelligent design theory.) His argument would be strengthened if he could say: having shown the morally dubious consequences of scientific reductionism, now let me explain to you the moral strength of my alternative conception, which is . . .

West says that Darwin's science cannot support "traditional morality," because it provides no "permanent foundation for ethics," and it abolishes "transcendent moral standards." But then he never explains anywhere in his book the content or ground of those "transcendent moral standards."

At the end of the book, he criticizes Darwin for not appealing to "timeless standards of truth sanctioned by God or nature." He thinks the clearest evidence for this is the "startling passage" about how the morality of human beings would be different if they were hive-bees. If human beings lived like bees, Darwin suggests, "our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering." But why does West find this "startling"? Does he believe that the morality of bees must be the same as the morality of human beings, because all living things are governed by the same "timeless standards"? But surely what is naturally good or desirable for human beings is not the same as what would be good or desirable for bees.

West says that "according to Darwin's framework, everything that regularly occurred in nature must be regard as normal almost by nature." But Darwin's hive-bee passage says just the opposite. What is "normal" for hive-bees is not "normal" for human beings.

So, again, I ask, what is West's alternative conception of morality as based on "timeless standards of truth sanctioned by God or nature"? Could he give us an example of the "transcendent moral standards" that he has in mind? Perhaps he could say that the Bible provides such transcendent moral standards sanctioned by God. But don't we have to pass the Bible through a moral filter to get morally correct conclusions, because sometimes the Bible is contrary to our natural moral sense?

As someone deeply influenced by C. S. Lewis, West might want to appeal to Lewis's idea of the universal morality that he calls the Tao in The Abolition of Man. But isn't it interesting that when Lewis adds his appendix to that book, with examples of the Tao, he is very selective. Lewis quotes from the Bible the commandment "thou shalt not kill." But he does not quote the command to "let no breathing thing live" in the conquest of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:10-20). Nor does Lewis quote any of the biblical passages endorsing slavery. Thus, Lewis carefully picks out those biblical passages that conform to his natural moral sense and rejects those that don't.

West devotes a lot of attention to the debate over the moral status of fetuses, because he sees abortion as a denial of the human dignity of the fetus. But there is no clear biblical statement that life begins at conception. On the contrary, the only biblical passage that seems pertinent suggests that a fetus's life has less value than that of a fully formed human being (Exodus 21:22-27). Even the papal statesments on abortion concede that the belief in life as beginning at conception cannot be based on the Bible. By contrast, many Jews interpret the biblical account of the creation of Adam as indicating that a fetus does not become human until there is a respiratory system in place, because Adam was less than fully human until God breathed life into him.

When readers of the Bible go through the story of God commanding Abraham to kill his innocent son Isaac as a test of Abraham's faith (Genesis 22), some readers interpret this to mean that we must obey any command of God no matter how immoral it is, and thus we are taught, as Kierkegaard said, that faith in God requires "the suspension of the ethical." But most readers assume that there must be some mistake in this biblical story, because surely God would not command what most of us recognize as an immoral act.

On this and other moral issues, it is not clear how we could grasp the transcendent moral standards sanctioned by God if we did not already have a natural moral sense.

West makes a lot of the connection between Darwin and eugenics. In Darwinian Conservatism, I argue that Darwin supported "good eugenics"--such as legally forbidding incestuous marriages that would produce harmful physical and mental disabilities. The recent efforts of Ashkenazi Jews to discourage the marriage of Tay-Sachs carriers would illustrate such "good eugenics." But I don't see any evidence in Darwin's writing that he endorsed Francis Galton's utopian schemes that we could properly condemn as "bad eugenics." West says that "Charles Darwin himself praised the idea of eugenic restrictions on marriage." But West doesn't notice that Darwin was specifically concerned about the effects of incest, which should be of concern for most people. Nor does West indicate that Galton's utopian eugenics goes back to Plato's proposal for eugenic mating in the Republic (459d). The cause of bad eugenics is not Darwin but utopianism.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Gregory Clark's A FAREWELL TO ALMS

Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World has been generating a lot of discussion. My interest in the book comes from its Darwinian theory of the Industrial Revolution. As I study the book, I am generally persuaded, but I am slow to fully embrace it because it goes against what I have believed about this issue.

Explaining why the Industrial Revolution emerged first in England, beginning around 1800, is one of the great questions in the social sciences. Throughout human history up to that point, all societies were caught in what Clark calls "the Malthusian trap." Clark shows that the average person in 1800 did not enjoy better material standards of living than the average person of 100,000 BC. This was because short-term increases in income due to technological improvements would bring growth in population, which would eventually force income down as greater numbers of people would divide up the limited resources. In the long run, birth rates would have to equal death rates. This was the natural economy of all animal species as subject to natural selection, including human beings. But then something happened in England around 1800, so that average incomes rose without falling, and this has spread to the most prosperous societies over the last 200 years.

The common explanation from many economists is that the institutional incentives for productivity--private property rights, free markets, low taxes, rule of law, limited government--developed first in England. The human preferences for accumulating material wealth had always been there throughout history, but the cultural evolution of institutional incentives in England was necessary to direct and channel these preferences. Before reading Clark's book, this was my position.

Against this, Clark offers some powerful empirical evidence that many, if not most, of these institutional incentives were already present in England in the Middle Ages, when private property was protected, taxes were low, markets were free, and so on. So there must have been something else at work to explain the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

Clark's answer is that from 1200 to 1800 in England, there was a Darwinian process of "survival of the richest" by which the richest families had the highest fertility rates, so that their offspring spread through the population of England. This evolution favored the spread of middle class or bourgeois values. "Thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent, and leisure loving" (166). "The bourgeois values of hard work, patience, honesty, rationality, curiosity, and learning" were embedded "into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics" of the English (11).

This last phrase--"the culture, and perhaps even the genetics"--is repeated in various ways through the book but without much explanation. The thought seems to be that while the evidence for a cultural evolution of bourgeois values is strong, the evidence for a genetic evolution of such values is not so clear. It would be hard to prove such a genetic change by group selection in only a few centuries.

I can believe that such a cultural evolution of bourgeois values could have occurred, and if so, this would be part of what I have called Darwinian political science, which rests on the interaction of history at three levels--the genetic evolution of the species, the cultural evolution of groups within the species, and the individual history of political judgments.

There are, however, some unresolved problems in Clark's reasoning. Most important for me is whether he can adequately explain the "demographic transition." Beginning around 1890, fertility rates in the most prosperous societies begin to vary in inverse proportion to wealth. Wealthier classes of people tend to have fewer children. This reverses the "survival of the richest" trend that Clark finds in England leading up to the Industrial Revolution and then up to 1890.

Clark offers various possible explanations for the demographic transition (289-96). He seems to reject the ideas that increasing incomes in general reduce fertility or that the lack of contraception in earlier years kept fertility high. He seems to favor explanations based on the idea that people had to produce more children in the past to hope to have two or three surviving children because of the high infant mortality in the past, or based on the idea that increasing social status for women made them less inclined to submit to the rigors of mothering many children. But Clark never lays out his final assessment of the demographic transition.

This is an important issue, because it seems that if the "survival of the richest" had not shifted to the demographic transition at the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution would have returned to the Malthusian trap, because overpopulation would eventually have exhausted the resource base (see 289).

I would suggest that Clark's position needs to be reformulated slightly. He has shown that explaining the English Industrial Revolution as a product of institutional incentives is not sufficient. But by implication those institutional incentives are still necessary conditions for the "survival of the fittest" to bring about the cultural evolution of bourgeois values over hundreds of years. The crucial point, then, is that introducing capitalist, liberal institutions into a poor society is not going to immediately bring prosperity. That might require a long period of cultural evolution.

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.